Path to a Low Carbon Economy is a High-Profile, National Campaign

By webadmin on 10:15 am Aug 01, 2012
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Satish Mishra

Have you noticed that in recent years there is an exciting new language of development ideas? Horizontal inequality, social inclusion, natural resource sustainability, energy efficiency, green jobs, global warming and global village, civic responsibility, pro-poor growth, green jobs and livable cities. All together it is quite a mouthful.

Think of your average civil servant and embattled politician. As if establishing a new democracy amid economic collapse and social division were not enough. Barely had that been done than these warriors of development had to master the nuances of the new doctrine of bringing geography into economics. They fashioned Indonesia’s new economic master plan, crafted along six economic corridors. The public was moved to dream of an Indonesia even better than Malaysia; a fivefold expected increase in GDP per capita, to close to $15,000 per capita in 14 short can-do years.

But there is always something to spoil the show. Just when the Indonesian economic machine was chugging along happily; just when the investment ratings agencies were heaping praise and wonder on a shining Indonesia, comes the new development thesaurus. Awkward questions: was Indonesia’s growth pro-poor, was it just and equitable, was it environmentally friendly, was its carbon footprint acceptable? These are all good questions, not wholly unanticipated, the voice and anxiety of a new democracy.

But as any savvy policy maker knows, the development business should never be taken for granted. Just when you understand where it might lead; just when you are making good tailwind and your sails are unfurled, and you have a happy song on your lips, comes a sudden squall; first nothing to worry about but soon a signal of new dangers ahead.

In Indonesia that dangerous precipice ahead is what is, in a typical low-key way of seasoned technicians, referred to as the Low Carbon Economy. You find yourself scratching your head: energy security, energy efficiency (waste not; want not), renewable energy (the kind that will not run out). All these sound vaguely familiar. But a low carbon economy, what is that?

Of course, the technicians and the scientists and those schooled in the new development language and the Stern Report, its present-day bible, have the numbers at their fingertips. The potential loss from climate change if all non-marketed costs are counted at the global level is 14 percent of global income, with two-thirds borne by the least developed countries, the result of the loss of assets such as infrastructure and productivity, putting previous development gains at risk. The message is clear. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions or else?

Not that simple in reality. High economic growth results in higher carbon emissions and an intensification of global warming. So we need to find a way of raising growth on a low carbon footprint path. New, greener technologies will help. But this alone is not enough.

It also means drawing up a strategic plan for each sector so that energy is conserved and diversified toward the renewable spectrum, forest use is sustainable through conservation and improved land use, mass transit systems for public transportation are increased and vehicles are made fuel efficient, and industrial machines and construction reduce their carbon footprints through the adoption of green technologies.

The evidence is clear. Gains from placing future GDP growth on a lower carbon economy plane could not be simpler to enumerate. Move to this plane and its win-win all the way. The poor are better off. Land and sea resources are conserved. Cities will look greener. We will take less-polluting public transportation or cycle to work; we will live longer because our cities will be less polluted and our neighbors will be happier since we will not be blowing our burning forest fires in their faces. The world would be a better place. All true. Single question: why is it not happening at the pace the technical experts want?

The answer also could not be clearer. The message is lost in the numbers. First, most people have no concept of what a low carbon economy is and what it means for them. Second, the gainers and the losers from moving on to a low carbon economy growth path are hardly ever identified. Third, no one believes that current profits from infrastructure, energy, transportation and forestry investments will be put on hold while the world works out an alternative path and incentive systems. Fourth, social action of the magnitude required in changing work and consumption behavior requires a social cohesion and consensus born out of prolonged public debate and open disagreement.

It is time to simplify the message. It is also time to take it to the ordinary person in the street: to derive very clear rules of behavior. Nothing short of a national, high-profile campaign will do. Political parties, civil society, educational institutions, religious organizations, family support groups and community organizations, international and local media, all are needed to get the message through. Charts and figures and clever reports and presentations must give way to an agenda for action with demonstrable success indicators. It is a vast undertaking.

The first place to start is to edit the new economic master plan to reflect a revised direction. The second is for any further presidential candidates to feel that if the numbers are right then 100 million Indonesians will judge them not only on how fast Indonesia has grown but also how well it has been able to use its resources. It is time to stop revising the numbers. It is time to focus on the message.

Satish Mishra is the managing director of Strategic Asia, a consultancy promoting cooperation between Asian countries.