It’s developed country, not emerging economy, attitudes that are the problem on sustainability

One of the best sets of data available on attitudes to sustainability around the world is the ‘Greendex’ produced by the polling company Globescan for National Geographic magazine. Its most recent version, published in 2012 (highlights; full pdf), paints a fascinating – and often surprising – picture.

For me, the key headline finding from the survey is all about the gap in perceptions between people in emerging economies and those in developed countries. Despite the fact that emerging economy citizens have much lower per capita consumption levels, the survey found that:

  • Emerging economy citizens are substantially more concerned about environmental problems than developed country citizens. The six countries in which most people agree with the statement “I am very concerned about environmental problems” are Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea (which is a developed country, of course), Argentina, and India. The bottom six (with the least concerned last) are Japan, the US, Germany, Britain, Australia, and (weirdly) Sweden. When prompted about global issues, environmental challenges like climate change, air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, and species and habitat loss all score consistently highly as concerns in emerging economies. In developed countries, on the other hand, consumers are less concerned about the environment and more focused on the economy and the cost of energy and fuel.
  • People in emerging economies are much more likely than people in developed countries to say that they feel guilty about their environmental impacts – despite the fact that their per capita environmental impacts are much lower. The countries in which most people agree that they feel guilty about their impacts are India, Mexico, China, Brazil, and Argentina; the lowest scoring are Britain, France, America, Australia, Germany, and (last and least) Japan.  Yet when these findings are plotted on the same graph as countries’ actual Greendex score – a measure of the sustainability or unsustainability of their consumption patterns – it emerges that those countries that feel least guilty are in fact those with the highest environmental impacts.

Greendex vs guilt

  • Emerging economy citizens are far more likely than those in the rich world to agree with the statement that “as a society we will need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations”. The countries that most endorse this view are Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and China; the US, Australia, Germany, and Japan are least convinced. And even though developed countries are least convinced of the need to consume less, they are also the most sceptical of the view that “people in all countries should have the same standard of living as people in the most wealthy countries”, with Germany, Canada, America, South Korea, and Japan all in the bottom five. (Interestingly, though, Britain and Spain score significantly higher than most other developed countries on both fronts.)

A similar story emerges on the specific issue of climate change. Of the 17 countries covered in the Greendex survey, the six in which most concern is expressed about climate change are Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, India, and China, with over 70% of people in each country saying that they are either concerned or very concerned about the issue. Britain, America, and Australia, on the other hand, rank  lowest, in every case with less than 45% of people in these two categories.

People in emerging economies are also much more likely to agree that “global warming will worsen my way of life within my own lifetime” than those in developed countries, and to support the statement that “most scientists are convinced that human activity causes climate change and global warming”.

A high ambition coalition of the willing on climate change

As the Center for Global Development’s Owen Barder and Alice Lepissier noted in their post from the COP19 climate summit in Warsaw last month, there was “lots of cloud and not much silver lining” in evidence there, what with Japan’s announcement of reduced emissions targets and the further diluting of the already dubious ‘pledge and review’ approach.

For me, though, the most depressing thing of all was the deafening silence among governments attending the COP about the issue of global carbon budgets. It’s a deep irony that, just as the IPCC publishes by far its most unequivocal analysis to date about the need to define (and then stay within) a safe global carbon budget, governments are less willing than ever to talk about the issue.

Part of the problem is that governments and other UNFCCC process hacks assume that a carbon budget is just too difficult to talk about. Not just because countries would have to agree on a way to share it out, but also, even more fundamentally, because of a sense that agreeing a carbon budget would depend on a ‘big bang’ moment at which all countries agreed on an allocation mechanism – and good luck with that.

This set Owen, Alice, and I thinking about whether there’s a way for some countries to go ahead with a carbon budget-based approach, but without all governments having to be on board at the outset: a high ambition coalition of the willing, in other words. Continue reading

A Global Partnership for the post-2015 Agenda

Debate about what new Goals should succeed the Millennium Development Goals after their 2015 deadline is now well underway. But there has so far been much less discussion of another key issue: a new Global Partnership to deliver them.

This is worrying – because although we won’t know the full list of new Goals for another two years, it already seems clear that we’re heading for a much more ambitious set of objectives than the Millennium Development Goals. There’s a real risk of a mismatch between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of post-2015, if governments agree an ambitious, universal set of Goals, but fail to commit to a credible action plan for making them happen.

Against this backdrop, I’ve just finished a Center on International Cooperation report (full pdf available here, and 8 page policy brief here) that sets out to explore both what kind of a Global Partnership is needed, and which elements of it look feasible for agreement in the current political context.

The report starts with an assessment of which countries want what from post-2015, and of what sort of goals the new Global Partnership may have to deliver, before setting out analysis and policy options of two key areas: financing, in the broadest sense, and the wider sustainable development agenda (encompassing areas like trade, migration, sustainability, technology, data, and global governance reform).

It also sets out a 10 point ‘early harvest’ plan of measures that could – at a stretch – be agreed over the next two to three years, and which have the potential to act as confidence building measures that might, with luck, start to catalyse more momentum and trust in an agenda that badly needs more of both.

Why can’t politicians ‘cut through’ on climate?

In the Guardian, Hugh Muir complains that the Daily Mail has “helped erode trust in the probity of the political establishment to the extent that politicians cannot now receive a fair hearing on anything.”

We don’t listen much to any of them these days, and sometimes that doesn’t matter, because we live quite happily day to day without ministerial interference. But when it comes to issues that affect the state and mood of the nation; the inability of even serious politicians to cut through becomes troubling.

This is spot on for climate change, as can be seen by a look at how Hugh’s own paper covered three stories in the run up to the Warsaw summit.

First, fossil fuel subsidies, where the Guardian gobbles up a global report from the Overseas Development Institute and presents it through a primarily national lens.

Fossil fuel subsidies

As I have explained, the Guardian’s framing is largely fallacious, but to pick up Hugh’s point, the government’s position is not reflected at all. No quotes. Nothing.

Only a tiny minority of readers would suspect that ministers deny Britain has any inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at all (or understand why). Nor would they realise that eliminating the ‘subsidy’ identified by ODI equates to quadrupling VAT on all domestic energy, whether it comes from fossil fuels or renewables. Continue reading

How to defuse the twin climate finance / post-2015 finance for development timebombs (updated)

Whether it’s at the climate summit currently underway in Warsaw (from where I’m writing this post) or at two key meetings happening in NYC next month on the post-2015 agenda, financing is one of the issues furrowing most brows.

Right now, progress in both places is stalled. Promises of $100 billion a year by 2020 under the Green Climate Fund are starting to look like a bad joke – especially to the least developed countries (LDCs) who most urgently need help to adapt to climate impacts.

Aid flows, meanwhile, have actually been declining for the last two yeas, rather than rising towards the 0.7% target. And they’re falling fastest for LDCs: while bilateral aid as a whole fell by 4% last year, it fell by 12.8% for them.

Nor does it look likely that rich countries are about to put big new pledges of cash on the table any time soon, what with weak growth, high unemployment, and fiscal pressures - despite the crucial 2015 deadlines on both climate and development. Yet if they fail to do so, it could toxify the dynamics on both issues – and contribute to an outcome where the climate and development ‘tribes’ perceive themselves to be fighting over the same pot of cash rather than working together on a shared agenda.

Is there any way to defuse this ticking timebomb? Well, there might be. Continue reading

ODI calls for VAT hike on energy bills (updated: ODI fights back)

In a brave move, the Overseas Development Institute – which bills itself as the UK’s leading international development think tank – has called for George Osborne to use his Autumn Statement to announce plans to quadruple the rate of VAT on household energy bills.

Despite sustained pressure for bills to be lowered to address a ‘cost of living’ crisis, ODI believes the Chancellor should raise VAT from 5% to the standard rate of 20%, bringing more than £4 billion into Treasury coffers.

According to an ODI spokesperson:

It is unconscionable that a young man should have to pay 20% to buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5 in order to wind down after a hard day in the City by slaughtering virtual representations of old ladies, when real life old people are able to pay only 5% to heat their homes.  This ‘warmth subsidy’ must end now.

If successful, ODI plans to campaign for the abolition of the Winter Fuel Allowance, saving another couple of billion. It will then call for a flat rate of VAT on all products, ending subsidies for reading and eating (both books and food are zero-rated).

Supporting this move… Continue reading

What Happens Now? – The Post-2015 Agenda After the High-level Panel

Briefing paper by Alex Evans and David Steven that explores the outlook for the post-2015 development agenda over the next two years and makes seven recommendations for member states and other champions of a bold, but practical, agreement. Updated in October 2013.

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