Alex Evans

About Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, where he works on international development, foreign policy, and resource scarcity. He is currently working primarily on the post-2015 development agenda and future global climate policy, and also writing a book on psychology, myth and sustainability. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Full biog here.

Climate tipping points – a quick guide

Yesterday’s news that we now appear to be on course for the unstoppable and irreversible loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) – the largest ice body in the world (for now, anyway) – means that we’re now probably past two key climate tipping points, the other being the loss of summer Arctic sea ice. So this is probably a good time to post a quick overview of all of the main climate tipping points: if you’re not familiar with this list, you should be…

Below is a quick guide, adapted from a chapter by Exeter University’s Tim Lenton in his and Tim O’Riordan’s book on the same subject. The book was published last year; as you can see, scientific consensus at the time was that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet “appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart”. So much for that estimate.

  • Arctic sea ice loss underwent a new record summer loss of area in 2012, breaking the previous record of 2007, and now covers only half the area of the late 1970s when satellites first began monitoring it. Current projections suggest we’re looking at complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice within decades. Already, the changing ice cover is changing air circulation patterns, and leading to cold winter extremes in Europe and North America.
  • The Greenland ice sheet may be nearing a tipping point beyond which it is committed to shrink; here too, the summer of 2012 saw record melting. Ice loss would probably take place over centuries, so this form of change wouldn’t be abrupt – but it might well be irreversible, and could ultimately lead to 7 metres of sea level rise, including up to half a metre this century.
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart, but has the potential for more rapid change, and hence bigger impacts in the near term. If warming exceeds 4º Celsius, the current best guess is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is ‘more likely than not’ to collapse, causing sea level rise of 1 metre per century and 3-4 metres in total.
  • The Yedoma permafrost in Siberia contains massive amounts of carbon – potentially up to 500 billion tonnes of it, about the same as has been emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution. If decomposition inside the permafrost starts to generate enough heat, all of the permafrost could tip into irreversible, self-sustaining collapse, generating a “runaway positive feedback” with emissions of 2-3 billion tonnes of carbon a year, or about a third of current fossil fuel emissions. The current best guess is that this would not happen before regional warming of 9º Celsius, but that could be closer than we think: in 2007, for instance, Arctic surface temperatures jumped 3º Celsius.
  • Ocean methane hydrates are thought to store up to 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon under the seabed. As the deep ocean warms, this frozen reservoir of methane could conceivably melt, causing an abrupt, massive release of the gas – which is four times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This is probably at the least likely end of the spectrum, but the impacts if it happened would be extreme.
  • The Himalayan glaciers could lose much of their mass over the coming century, with the change becoming self-amplifying as exposure of bare ground increases the amount of sunlight energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface rather than reflected back into space. Scientists are so far unsure as to whether a large-scale tipping point could apply to this trend.
  • The Amazon rainforest experienced severe droughts in both 2005 and 2010 – in both cases, turning the forest into a source of carbon rather than a sink for absorbing it. If, as is currently happening, the dry season continues to lengthen, and droughts get more frequent and severe, then the rainforest could reach a tipping point, with up to 80% of trees dying off. Widespread dieback is expected at increases of over 4º Celsius, and could be committed to at much lower temperature increases – long before we notice it happening.
  • Western Canada’s boreal forest is currently suffering from an invasion of mountain pine beetle, leading to widespread dieback which has already turned the forest from a source to a sink. More widespread die-off could happen in future at global average warming of more than 3º Celsius, further amplifying global warming.
  • Tropical coral reefs are already experiencing bleaching as oceans warm up, and may be nearing a ‘point of no return’. Further risks come from the increasing acidification of the oceans, which could see up to 70% of corals in corrosive water by the end of this century.
  • The Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) – in effect, a massive oceanic conveyer belt that drives the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, and which helps keep northern Europe much warmer than it would otherwise be – could shut down altogether if enough freshwater dilutes the ocean’s salinity; current best guesses are that this could happen at global average warming of over 4º Celsius. A weakening THC could also drive an additional quarter metre of sea level rise along the north-eastern seaboard of the United States.
  • The Sahel and West African Monsoon has experienced rapid changes in the past, including a catastrophic drought that lasted from the late 1960s through to the 1980s, and could be disrupted anew by changes to the THC. The Indian Summer Monsoon, meanwhile, is already being disrupted and rice harvests damaged, in particular by the cloud of brown haze that now sits semi-permanently over the Indian sub-continent.

Of course, the really big question in each case is exactly where the tipping points lie, and what level of temperature increase might push us over the threshold. Some research suggests that warning of 1º Celsius over the average temperature of the 1980s and 1990s would be dangerous; other recent work suggests that 4º could be where the danger zone begins.

But again, note that the best guess just one year ago was that it would take 4º of warming to cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse; in the event, current warming of 0.7º above pre-industrial levels seems to have been enough to push us over the edge. It’s a salutary reminder of how little we know about climate tipping points – and hence just how risky and high stakes a situation we’re in.

And in all scenarios, the key point is that these kinds of temperature increases are exactly where our current trajectory is headed: current policies have us on track for 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the IEA. In the worst case scenario, Tim Lenton observes, we could slide into

“…’domino dynamics’, in which tipping one element of the Earth system significantly increases the probability of tipping another, and so on … on several occasions in the past, the planet was radically reorganized without there being any sign of a particularly large forcing perturbation.”

Wondering what you can do in the face of such relentlessly gloomy news? Get hold of any policymaker you can and ask them whether they support a binding global carbon budget, and fair – i.e. equal per capita – shares of it for all the world’s people. Ask whichever NGO you support whether they’re calling for the same thing at the Paris summit next year. And don’t take any shit from anyone about how technology and voluntary action are going to do the business without anyone having to take any tough decisions.

(See also this companion post, also published here today, for a slightly different take on the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.)

OECD DAC Chair Erik Solheim replies on ODA to least developed countries

A couple of days ago, I argued in a post here that while it was welcome that aid flows had reached a new all-time high in 2013, it was bad news that aid was continuing to fall to Least Developed Countries (LDCs). These are, after all, the economies that need aid most, given that – unlike middle income countries –  they remain highly dependent on aid (9.7% of their GDP compared to 0.3% of middle income countries’), and much less able to finance their development from other sources like foreign direct investment, remittances, or domestic resources like savings or tax revenue.

With the debate about post-2015 development objectives increasingly focused less on the goals themselves than on the resources that will enable their delivery – “means of implementation”, in UN-speak – I wrapped up the post by repeating a call I’d made in a report last year on a post-2015 Global Partnership for Development, echoing a recommendation made by the UN High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda (itself based on a long-standing UN target):

With the post-2015 agenda now about to move into the home straight, this is the year when donors need to set out a clear timetable for making good on their long-standing promise to give at least 0.15% of their gross national income (GNI) to least developed countries – and ideally go beyond it to 0.20%. And the OECD DAC’s High Level Meeting this December is the right moment to do it.

On which note, I also sent a tweet to the Chair of the OECD DAC, Norway’s Erik Solheim, to put the idea to him: here’s what he came back with.

This is a fair point. If we unpack Solheim’s example of the United States, they only give 0.19% of GNI to aid in total, and 0.07% of GNI to LDCs (here’s the data). So for them to spend 0.15% of GNI on LDCs, as I’m proposing, would be a drastic shift, involving spending more than three quarters of their total aid budget on LDCs.

But Solheim also had another idea:

This is a pretty interesting idea. To stick with our example of the US, this approach would clearly be much less scary in that it would involve much less upheaval in aid allocations. But at the same time, given that the OECD as a whole spent 0.30% of its GNI on aid in 2013, the net result of what Solheim’s proposing would be that LDCs would receive… 0.15% of OECD GNI, the same proportion that I was calling for to start with.

And here’s the really key point: given that the OECD’s analysis of 2013 aid spending suggested that “aid levels could increase again in 2014 and stabilise thereafter”, the implication is that if donors were to commit to spending half their aid on LDCs, then the percentage of GNI could quickly rise to more than 0.15%.

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Surprise! Aid flows are at a new all time high

So here’s a big surprise. Until last year, global aid flows were declining in the wake of the financial crisis – a trend that was widely expected to continue. But here’s what emerged when the OECD’s 2013 aid statistics came out last month:

Development aid rose by 6.1% in real terms in 2013 to reach the highest level ever recorded, despite continued pressure on budgets in OECD countries since the global economic crisis. Donors provided a total of USD 134.8 billion in net official development assistance (ODA), marking a rebound after two years of falling volumes, as a number of governments stepped up their spending on foreign aid.

An annual survey of donor spending plans by the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) indicated that aid levels could increase again in 2014 and stabilise thereafter.

Admittedly, there are two important qualifiers here. One is that while aid may be at an all-time high in absolute terms, that’s not true for the arguably more important measure of aid as a proportion of donor countries’ gross national income: in 2013 they gave 0.30% of GNI, as compared to 0.32% in 2010 (and way lower, of course, than the 0.7% target).

The other point, flagged up by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria in his comments on this year’s statistics, is that the trend of falling aid to the neediest countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (which saw a 4% real terms decrease against 2012), is still happening and appears likely to continue in the future. The new aid stats also show that donor countries only gave 0.09% of their GNI to least developed countries in 2012 – as compared to 0.10% the year before.

Donor countries have got to sort this out. While middle income countries now have access to a huge range of sources of finance for development – foreign direct investment, remittances, commercial debt, portfolio equity, and a vast increase in domestic resources from tax revenue and savings – that doesn’t hold true for low income countries, who are still highly reliant on aid. With the post-2015 agenda now about to move into the home straight, this is the year when donors need to set out a clear timetable for making good on their long-standing promise to give at least 0.15% of their GNI to least developed countries – and ideally go beyond it to 0.20%. And the OECD DAC’s High Level Meeting this December is the right moment to do it.

No diplomats, thanks

Anyone who’s spent much time around UN headquarters in New York will know that the one ATM within walking distance of the UN is in the UN Plaza branch of JP Morgan Chase – handily located right across First Avenue from the UN building, and in the same building as UNDP. No surprise, then, that it’s also the bank of choice for numerous diplomats at the UN.

Until now, anyway. For JP Morgan Chase has now decided that, given the increasing compliance costs of anti-money laundering regulations, it’s just not worth its while to offer accounts to foreign officials based in the US. Not only that, but it suddenly decided this on Friday last week – and put the new regime into operation immediately, suspending all diplomats’ credit cards and blocking their accounts.

A terse letter sent to customers said “we recommend that you open a bank account with another financial institution, and begin using it immediately”. Well, yes. Jose Antonio Ocampo, former finance minister of Colombia and a leading contender to run the World Bank last time the job was up for grabs, was quoted like this in the FT: “Friday was hell for me. I had all my money frozen. I am being treated like a criminal.” According to the same piece, 3,500 accounts have been frozen.

As Colum Lynch notes in the Washington Post, this is rapidly becoming a headache for the State Department, which is obliged under a 1947 UN Agreement to ensure that foreign missions in the US have access to “necessary public services”. State’s Undersecretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, has been dispatched to NYC to try and persuade banks to cater for the diplo-crowd. Not sure what kind of reception he’s going to get, given that the US’s money laundering crackdown is why all this is happening in the first place…

Quadruple or Quits – managing the links between the four 2015 agendas of trade, climate, SDGs, and finance for development

Talk given by Alex Evans to a UK government cross-Whitehall session on the four key multilateral processes culminating in 2015: trade, climate, Sustainable Development Goals, and finance for development. (May 2012)

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Could Iceland actually be any more progressive?

 

Remember how Iceland got flattened by the financial crisis? How, as an IMF official put it to Michael Lewis at the time, “You have to understand, Iceland is no longer a country. It’s a hedge fund”?

Right, so, unsurprisingly, they slashed their aid budgets right back after the crisis, and gave just 0.22% of gross national income to official development assistance in 2012 (total spend: $26 million). But get this: they’ve set a target of giving 0.7% by 2019.

There are only 300,000 of them, for heaven’s sake. A community the size of Swansea or Reading are going to be giving something like seventy million dollars in aid - just a few years after facing a national near death experience. Can anyone even imagine that happening here?

This made me curious about what else has been going on in Iceland since the crisis, and led me to this fascinating paper on Iceland’s Financial Crisis and Level of Living Consequences, by Stefán Ólafsson. Some snippets:

The government went into a standby program with the IMF that ended in the autumn of 2011, with most of the goals relating to resurrection of the financial system and containment of public finances having been achieved. The IMF declared Iceland as a graduate with flying colours. Growth of 3-4% is expected in 2011 and some growth for the next years, while the extent of government debt seems set to be reduced from 2013 onwards. The government had also declared that it aimed to safe the welfare state against cuts as far as possible. In effect that meant less expenditure cuts for welfare issues than for other fields. That has in effect been the case. The public budget situation was mended with a mixed way of expenditure cuts and tax increases, in similar proportions, with taxes raised particularly on higher income groups.

Unlike pretty much everyone else everywhere, Iceland has come out of the crisis a more rather than less equal country:

The more vulnerable groups and lower income groups in general have had less extensive cuts in real living standards than the higher income groups. While the whole nation has suffered a setback in living standards that take it on average back to the state it was at around 2003-4, the lower income groups have not gone as far back as that and higher income groups are closer to the level they were at
around 2000. This was achieved by raising specifically minimum pensions for old age and disability pensioners, the minimum wage was also increased a little while general wages remained little changed, the social assistance allowance was raised significantly and the universal flat rate unemployment benefit was increased a little in 2009-10. Pensions for higher earning pensioners were however cut somewhat …

Direct tax rates on lower incomes were in effect cut a little both in 2009 and 2010 while they were raised on higher incomes. That was done by introducing higher tax rates for higher income groups and also by raising the tax on financial earnings as well as by introducing a new wealth tax aimed at those who had accumulated great fortunes during the preceding decades.

Any bailouts? Yes, actually, but not the ones you might be thinking of:

The government introduced various debt relief programs, in cooperation with financial institutions, pension funds and the labour market partners. These were generally targeted at households in greater need rather than flat rate across the board. Some interest groups and politicians had called for a flat rate cut but that was estimated to be both too costly for taxpayers and inefficient in alleviating the greatest problems.

Rising incomes in the developing world do not a new age of equality make

Last week saw Oxfam’s big new report on inequality, timed to coincide with WEF in Davos, garnering a huge amount of attention in the media – even attaining a rebuttal from the American Enterprise Institute.

The report was also the subject of Tim Harford’s column in the FT’s weekend edition. Tim takes a somewhat sceptical view, observing that while “the thrust of Oxfam’s argument is that in a lot of countries, the gap between the incomes of the rich and poor is widening” – which he accepts – the report underplays the wider context: for the world as a whole, income inequality appears to be falling (“which is why it’s so baffling that Oxfam has jumped in here feet first”).

I agree with Tim that the data show incomes rising a lot for most people in developing countries from the late 1980s onwards, whereas they’ve remained stagnant for middle classes in developed countries – c.f. this superb graph from Branko Milanovic (posted here a couple of months back), which shows relative change in incomes for each percentile over the period 1988-2008.

But I have to admit I’m befuddled as to why Tim should be baffled on why Oxfam’s taking a strong position on inequality. Here are four reasons why.

First, while it’s true that many people in developing countries have been catching up in relative terms, let’s not lose sight of just how far they have to go in absolute terms. For all the focus on the travails of the ‘squeezed middle’ in the North and for all the breathless commentary about emerging economy rates of growth, China’s GDP per capita is still only $6,091 – compared to $38,514 in the UK, $41,514 in Germany, and $49,965 in the US. It’s a little early to be hailing a new global age of egalitarianism just yet.

Second, Milanovic’s graph also shows that the incomes of the very poorest didn’t rise at all over the period 1988-2008. That’s not to denigrate the real achievements of the MDG period: halving poverty seven years ahead of the MDG deadline was no small feat. But as David Steven and I noted in our paper on the ‘business as usual’ outlook on poverty to 2030 for the Post-2015 UN High Level Panel, the people still remaining in poverty will be much harder to reach than those who escaped poverty in the MDG era.

They’ll be increasingly concentrated in fragile states (or parts of them), often in the absence of a functioning government, and frequently at risk of violence or displacement. They’ll tend to be in geographically or politically marginalised communities – the places, ethnicities, or castes that are at best neglected, at worst actively discriminated against or repressed. “Getting to zero” on poverty by 2030 – the likely headline target of the post-2015 development goal framework – will be much harder than halving it by 2015.

Third, while the incomes of developing country middle classes are catching up in relative terms with developed country middle class incomes, the incomes of the global rich are powering ahead – and that’s before we even consider wealth, which is where inequalities get really spectacular.

Tim raises an eyebrow about Oxfam’s headline stat, that the richest 85 people on Earth control the same amount as the poorest half of the global population, accusing Oxfam of “sophistry” given that the poorest people have less wealth than his toddler son: he has zero wealth whereas poor people have negative wealth, i.e. their debts outweigh their assets. But, he goes on, that argument takes no account of e.g. earning potential. Which is a fair point in one sense: I and most readers of this blog have mortgages and hence negative wealth, but it’s manifestly absurd to bracket us in with people who live on less than a dollar a day.

Fair enough. But it’s still the case that the global distribution of wealth is utterly skewed. And if Tim doesn’t like the 85 people / half the world’s population factoid, then how about this one: 8.4% of the world’s five billion adults own 83.4% of the wealth, while just 32 million people, less than 1% of adults, own 41% of the wealth. So it’s a bit of a stretch to call Oxfam, or Credit Suisse (from where Oxfam’s, and my, data comes) of “distortion” on the basis of his toddler argument.

Finally, we ought also to consider the global distribution of risk, as well as income and wealth. You might reasonably expect that as emerging middle classes in developing countries have become better off, they’ve also become more secure. But not necessarily.

True, more people have escaped poverty since 2000 than ever before. Yet the members of this ‘breakout generation’, whom you can find in large numbers in any of the rapidly expanding cities of the global South, are increasingly finding themselves playing a high stakes game of snakes and ladders: while they are finding new opportunities to improve their lot, they are also encountering all kinds of new risks that could halt their progress – or push them back into poverty.

To start with, they’re particularly vulnerable to any slowdown in national growth rates – something that now appears to be happening in many emerging economies that initially proved largely immune to the effects of the financial crisis and Great Recession. They’re also much more likely to be working in insecure, informal, or low-paid employment, all of which affect young people in particular.

On top of that, they rely on urban infrastructures that risk buckling under the strain of rocketing demand: you don’t have to spend long in a city like Addis Ababa or Karachi to see how overstretched systems for providing water, sanitation, electricity, or transport are. They’re also in the front line of the impacts of growing resource scarcity, particularly in the form of price spikes or inflation in the cost of fuel and food. They’re heavily exposed to the social strains of high rates of inequality, and usually lack access to safety nets or social protection systems. And increasingly, they also face the rise of trans-boundary shocks ranging from financial and economic crises through to accelerating climate change impacts.