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23 April 2014

Climate Change and the economy: the need to get our priorities right

 - Sunday, 19 February 2012, 00:00 , by Leo Brincat

Talking of trying to save the planet when the eurozone countries and others beyond it are struggling hard, trying to save the euro from collapse while at the same time coping with credit rating agency downgrades, might seem presumptuous – or ill-timed.

In my opinion it is not, it is simply a question of getting our priorities right. And that is exactly what each member state of the EU must set out to do – at a national level, at an EU level as well as within the context of the international fora in which the EU participates and where key and pivotal issues are raised and decided upon.

We are presently living in a post-Durban, pre-Rio period, where action plans still need to be drawn up, agreed upon and, even more importantly, implemented.

The link between the environment, sustainable development, clean technology, a green economy, resource efficiency and climate change has never been stronger or more relevant.

Meanwhile the challenges have never been so daunting.

This particular meeting comes at a time when the EU, notwithstanding the fiscal and economic challenges ahead, is also busy addressing the priorities of its own 2020 climate and energy policies, while mapping out its bold agenda ahead of the Rio Summit.

It is an agenda whereby it has vowed to transform development aid and help provide renewable energy to the world’s neediest people while also strengthening the UN environment body.

What I find most inspiring and creative is that, in its agenda for change, rather than paying the customary lip service to these sectors and institutions, the EU is proposing a number of positive initiatives that merit encouragement and active support – prime amongst which is that foreign aid should be pumped into sustainable growth and improved energy access.

At the same time the idea is being floated that UNEP – the UN Environment Programme – should be transformed into an agency with expanded influence and greater power to promote research and development.

We have had various pledges in the past to boost foreign aid, but I do not recall similar instances where there has been such an obvious desire for such a strong focus on sustainable growth.

For the first time in recent years we are basically talking of a strongly enhanced energy access initiative.

It is true that in Copenhagen the EU might have been marginalised when it came to the Climate Summit, and some of the shine of its momentum in Durban might have lost its lustre, but in trying to lead by example it is setting benchmarks and objectives that should be the envy of other regional blocs and countries.

The only snag is that in an interdependent world, where globalisation rules, warts and all, such initiatives are unlikely to make any headway unless they also win the support of the big powers – including the dynamic so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries.

The EU can prove to be the best green region but global issues need global action. The EU can lead by example, but it has to have credible leverage if others are to follow.

The EU’s objective will have only been achieved if, in the wake of Rio and the forthcoming Qatar Climate Summit, it can prove to be an effective catalyst in turning such high powered initiatives into a ground-breaking shift towards low-carbon, resource-efficient economic growth – even more so in the wake of the disappointments of recent climate and development summits.

When it comes to the euro, the argument is often made that the best way to try and address a thorny issue resulting from a summit is to hold yet another summit.

While summitry has its importance, in this day and age – when expectations, aspirations and anxieties run very high – result orientation is of the essence.

This is why I repeatedly stress the need for action plans, benchmarking and deliverables.

Commitments should be there to be honoured, the same way as certain declarations of intent and pledges must be respected and implemented.

It all boils down to a balancing act – between committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, boosting our use of renewable energy, enhancing energy efficiency while simultaneously transforming our economies and creating a new type of job – green jobs, at a time when economic stimuli are needed to foster economic growth.

With many EU countries being economically stagnant and facing rising unemployment, this might prove harder to achieve than it would under normal, business as usual, circumstances.

Who would have thought that, while we are tackling such grand designs, Europe itself is currently not only facing sovereign debt problems but has even reached the stage where its leaders felt compelled to turn to China and others for help in the hope of tapping their deep cash reserves?

Unless we live up to our commitments, these noble objectives will be relegated to mere platitudes.

One definite move in the right direction which EU countries – especially the major players – can make is to shift their global sovereign wealth funds into so-called green investments.

As is often argued within purely climate-related initiatives, the cost of doing nothing is likely to prove more expensive than resorting to long pending adaptation and mitigation problems.

I cannot but agree more with EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, who recently linked discussions on the economic situation with the climate, environment and resource crises.

The point she made was that the EU should stop thinking in silos and seek solutions to all of these challenges in a more holistic manner.

Let me cite two examples. It is a given that Europe was still far from reaching its targets, especially in energy efficiency. In my opinion addressing this made economic sense in the long term.

On the other hand the completion of the 20-20-20 targets (20 per cent reduction of CO2 emission by 2020, 20 per cent growth in the use of renewable energy sources and 20 per cent increase in energy efficiency) should not be merely seen as an objective but as a catalyst for creating many new jobs of a new kind with increased value added.

In my opinion, the world must move towards a much more sustainable pathway and this requires greater investment, commitment and attention from the public and private sectors, in spite of the fact that it comes at a time when money is scarce.

The scarcer the money, the more we need to prioritise and act judiciously.

In my opinion, were such targets to be met not only will we have a smarter and more sustainable growth but by linking and implementing such policies together we can effectively boost our competitiveness both within the EU itself and on a national level.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Danish Presidency for its endeavours to link economic policy to environmental policy.

It is very old hat to keep on thinking that these are two alien and incompatible sectors. On the contrary, they are bound together by an evident umbilical chord – the need to retain, maintain and, if possible under the existing dire circumstances, even hopefully improve our quality of life, as well as that of future generations.

May I add that:

History teaches us that, in periods of economic turmoil, we need to invest to ease our problems.

Europe needs to maximise its environmental R&D, particularly to attack the problems of climate change.

Europe needs to develop new technologies that will help resolve both environmental and economic concerns and issues.

If Europe relies on existing developments, it will become even more uncompetitive against lower cost countries that also have access to existing technologies.

We can only create Green Jobs if these jobs result in competitive and marketable products – at European costs this means that the products need to be novel and more advanced.

Europe has the intellectual resources and we must ensure that less of these resources goes to waste

Let us use these bright young minds. It is simply a question of marshalling our resources – something of which Malta has considerable experience: seeing what has and can be achieved with scant resources.

Leo Brincat is the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change. This talk was given at Friday’s NSTF Malta Student Science Forum

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