September 28, 2022, by Dr. Hannes Swoboda (President of the Club of Rome – Austrian Chapter).
Fifty years after the first report of the Club of Rome, or actually to the Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth), there is now a new report under the title “Earth for All”. This is a comprehensive analysis of the social conditions and prerequisites for a forward-looking climate policy. But the study also looks at the potential for failure through hesitant action.
With this in mind, the authors present two scenarios. The one option we can “opt” for is to do little, too late to stop the catastrophic evolution of our Earth system (too little, too late). Under this scenario, we must expect global warming of 2 degrees in 2050 and then 2.4 degrees 25 years later. As a consequence, we must prepare for “rapidly successive extreme events becoming the norm.” Moreover, it would be a world of persistent poverty in the South and inequality in the North.
The alternative is to take a big leap (Giant Leap). Now it is not surprising which way the authors decide to go. But they do not make it too easy for themselves. The giant leap they advocate requires five U-turns. And even if they sound simple, implementing these radical changes requires a lot of new thinking and courageous action. What is interesting and, in my view, very welcome is the sustained emphasis on equity as a basic element of any climate policy that hopes to succeed.
Five key reversals
The first about-face the study cites is the call for ending poverty. This can only happen if the economies of poorer countries continue to grow. Low-income countries should achieve 5% annual growth to gradually reduce poverty. So, it is not a question of a global renunciation of growth, but of a very differentiated approach.
The second turnaround concerns the elimination of glaring inequality. The goal should be to ensure that the richest 10% of the population receive less than 40% of national or global income. In this respect, too, the study does not take a utopian approach, but a realistic one: it does not aim for full equality, but for a – albeit significant – reduction in inequality.
The third about-face can also be subsumed under the heading of equity. The study calls for a policy of empowerment of women. On the one hand, women still have a smaller carbon footprint than men, but on the other hand, they are economically and socially disadvantaged in many respects.
As a fourth turnaround, the study cites a food system that is healthy for people and ecosystems. There should be no expansion of agricultural land. Existing soils should be better cared for and protected, and, above all, food waste should be significantly reduced. And, of course, there must be a transition away from high meat consumption to increased plant-based diets.
The fifth turnaround concerns the transition to clean and sustainable energies,
transition to clean and sustainable energies. This involves, above all, an extensive and sustainably produced electrification of the economy and society. It can be assumed that a renewable energy-based electrification of transport, heating, and most of the producing industry will reduce CO2 emissions by up to 75%.
Of course, all these turnarounds are not so easy to bring about. 2 to 4 % of the global social product would have to be spent by 2050. And, of course, this cannot be done without social upheaval. Social networks are therefore needed to minimize the burden on the socially disadvantaged. The authors also propose – and not only for this reason – the introduction of a basic pension. Everyone, especially the companies that use and consume national or global common goods (fossil fuels, land, fresh water, oceans, air, data, etc.) should pay taxes for them. And these are then to be redistributed to the population.
This Universal Basis Dividend (UBD) is a central idea of the study. And it is indeed more convincing than the abstractly discussed “basic income”. The basic dividend compensates for the one-sided use of resources to which the general public is entitled. It bears clear elements of a policy of justice. It is part of a resource-conserving policy and contributes to redistribution. In general, there has been a growing debate in the scientific community about the unilateral and excessive use of common goods (alms). The Earth for All report makes a particularly valuable contribution in this regard.
A coalition to reverse the global trend
The giant leap with its five about-turns and especially with the introduction of the basic dividend does not lead us to paradise. But we would live in a world that is fundamentally different from today’s and that offers us a future worth living. Thus, regarding this new world, the authors say: “Extreme poverty hardly exists anymore and the danger of escalating climate change is avoided.”
But again and again the authors emphasize “that the fastest transformation in history must take place in the coming decade.” And further, “To do so, we must build the broadest coalition the world has ever seen.”
This rightly raised demand brings us to a particularly critical point. How are we to arrive at such a broad coalition in times of increased fragmentation and confrontation? Russia is at war with Ukraine and even threatening the West with nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China have a strained relationship, and even after Trump’s departure, it has not gotten better – on the contrary. In the Middle East, while the relationship between Israel and some Arab countries has improved, tensions remain high over Iran. War is being waged in Yemen and Ethiopia. There are tensions in several parts of Africa, which may also lead to new armed conflicts.
In the face of such a global situation, it will be very difficult to forge an effective coalition for a sustainable climate policy. Already the promises of the rich countries to support the poorer ones in their transformation have hardly been kept. Support for energy transformation away from coal for South Africa is an exceptional case. Perhaps some new rays of hope will emerge at COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh this November, but the odds are not good. This is not to question the wisdom of calling for a global coalition to achieve the “giant leap.” But it will take a lot of effort by the well-intentioned to achieve such a coalition in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, a part of the well-wishers, namely the EU countries, is at the moment mainly concerned with achieving sufficient – fossil – energy to replace the stopped oil and gas supplies from Russia. And these are not the energies we need for sustainable electrification. At the same time, it is not so easy to reconcile this short-term supply with the long-term transformation toward sustainability. Some suppliers who are now willing to accommodate Europe, for example by supplying liquefied natural gas (LNG), insist on long-term supply contracts. But this stands in the way of a climate-friendly transformation.
Correctly, the authors of “Earth for All” list some obstacles and disruptions to implementing the “giant leap” forward. But there are, unfortunately, many more problems and resistances that we need to consider if we do not want to approach the task of transformation too naively. None of this should deter us from taking the big leap forward. We just have to keep an eye on the realistic starting conditions.
Climate change and migration
Nevertheless, and precisely for this reason, we must realistically also keep in mind the consequences that can result if this “giant leap” cannot be started or is delayed. The report to the Club of Rome, after all, analyzes some of these consequences and mentions growing poverty and inequality in particular. In this context, another recent work is particularly interesting and worth reading.
In her book “Nomad Century”, Gaia Vince assumes that we will hardly manage to meet the Paris climate targets. She fears warming of the world more in the direction of 3-4 degrees. “But even if we reach a warming of only 1.5 degrees in 2030, it is not a picnic. At that temperature, about 15% of the world’s population would be exposed to deadly heat waves every five years, and that’s 1.3 billion people. At 2 degrees of warming, that number would rise to 3.3 billion people.” The consequences would be an increasing number of crop failures, reduced fishing, and rapidly rising sea levels.
For Gaia Vince, there is only one way to respond, and that is through increased migration toward the cooler and more fertile regions, “Migration is not the problem, it is the solution.” She knows, of course, that the resistance of potential immigrant countries is already very strong. That is why she calls for a well-managed and globally coordinated migration policy. In this regard, Gaia Vince hopes that the need for labor in northern cities will meet the pressure to emigrate from southern regions that are no longer habitable. But in all cases, global cooperation is again needed to manage migration flows. However, this will not be easy in a world where migrants are also used or abused as weapons.
The comprehensive approaches and concrete examples offered by the new report to the Club of Rome are essential contributions to a realistic climate policy. This also applies to works such as that of Gaia Vince on the connection between climate policy and migration, and of course to the elaborations of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker. When the latter pleads for a new enlightenment, he too – in collaboration with Anders Wijkman – emphasizes the need to place climate policy in a comprehensive social context.
It’s just not as Corinne Sawers and Eric Lonegram suggest in an otherwise readable book, Supercharge Me: “We don’t need to convince anyone of the urgency.” All the economies of the world are trying to reduce their emissions. So, there is a consensus about what needs to be done. We don’t need a complete restructuring of our individual lifestyles. We don’t need an end to capitalism, we don’t need a reduction in incomes, we don’t need high taxes, we need to start with two tasks: we need to generate electricity sustainably and run everything on electricity.” I, on the other hand, think there is more to be done – as described in the Earth for All report – and then some. Unfortunately, the current geopolitical situation does not encourage or promote the formation of a global coalition that would launch such a comprehensive transformation. But the task of climate-just transformation is too important to be neglected.
Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, Owen Gaffney, Jayati Ghosh, Jorgen Randers, Johan Rockström, Per Espen Stoknes: EARTH4ALL, A survival guide for Humanity.