Environment & energy | Australia, Asia, The World

15 July 2022

Policymakers need to look past local indicators of success and acknowledge their impact on the global climate battle, Bodhi Hardinge writes.

The success of global environmental policy in coming decades will be determined by its political longevity and scale. This, in turn, is ultimately tied to how it mediates the competing interests of capital and the environment. Balancing the profit incentives of capitalist economies with the cause of sustainability is the only way for the world to live sustainably in the long-term. Third-way sustainability aims to save the global environment.

Environmental policy aims to protect the environment from destruction, but often needs to consider the environment’s role in the economy, which is as a resource to be used for economic growth and prosperity. There is a direct tension here and policymakers need to prioritise and balance these values.

Humanity’s ability to exploit resources has grown from small levels of pollution affecting just a local environment to such a scale that the entire Earth System is now being affected. Where before, in Victorian England for example, the soot from coal mostly impacted a single mining-based community, today the scale of emissions from coal combustion have pushed the entire planet into an era of anthropogenic climate change. As the world has increased its consumption, environmental exploitation has grown in step.

Of course, this has facilitated massive quality-of-life improvements of an equally unprecedented scale and scope. But, environmental exploitation is inevitably linked to this growth, and will eventually threaten it.

There are many direct impacts, such as increased incidence of disaster like flooding, heat-waves, and others. There are also many indirect impacts, such as diminished crop-yields, increased competition for food, decreased productivity, and other socio-economic ripple effects.

As leaders know, all of these effects are already happening. Climate change will not wait for a perfect solution. The need for remediation is immediate.

More on this: Solving Australia’s energy crisis

There are three types of option available to policymakers. Business-as-usual, a wholesale reduction of consumption, or reducing the global environmental impact of consumption enough to prevent a climate disaster without significantly reducing consumption.

A business-as-usual approach fails to fundamentally negate the environmental impact of consumption, setting itself up for future crises.

Consumption would continue to generate an unacceptable volume of emissions, diminishing the ability of Earth to support life through environmental impacts such as decreased crop yields.

In turn, extreme events that disrupt population-sustaining production would have exponentially worse impacts, affecting preparedness for the next disaster and creating a cycle of destruction. This approach is environmentally infeasible.

Aiming for a reduction of consumption such that the environmental impact is negligible is also not a viable option. To reduce environmental impact to negligible levels consumption would have to be reduced to negligible levels too, affecting quality of life too extremely – nobody wants to see fewer goods to buy, less food to eat, less jobs for vulnerable communities, and in the end, the spread of poverty. This approach is politically infeasible.

The ‘third way’ is a compromise between the environmentalist need to reduce consumption and profit-incentivised business-as-usual. This is a just transition – a global approach to maintaining a level of consumption-driven prosperity while lowering the environmental impact associated with that consumption to negligible levels.

New technology can only do so much in this space – policy must enable it. Along with scientific innovation, leaders must view this as a broader political innovation. Climate policy must satiate – though not indulge – capitalism’s ravenous profit incentive structure while protecting the environment from its side effects.

More on this: Celebrating biodiversity and the meaning of ‘sustainable’

This is third-way sustainability: policymakers must civilise capitalist instincts to exploit the environment and shift them toward using it for sustainability while tempering the environmentalist urge to protect the local environment at the cost of the global environment.

The only viable way to do achieve this is to reduce the environmental impact of consumption, not consumption itself, especially through energy transition.

Consider a practical example. End-to-end production of renewable energy assets currently involves the vast consumption of non-renewable energy and resource exploitation, especially in countries that are in the early stages of their transition. This will entail significant local environmental impacts through mining, processing, production, and distribution, along with embedded emissions.

The mining and production of renewable energy assets may appear environmentally damaging on the surface, but it is a good example of how the local environment is exploited to save the global environment. Third-way sustainability would permit this local impact in exchange for its long-term role in reducing global emissions.

The end goal is to replace all non-renewable energy with renewable energy. Eventually, this will mean we can make solar panels with solar power, but in most of the world, this isn’t possible yet. Exploiting the local environment to facilitate this transition to global sustainability is third-way sustainability and the price of survival.

This is a socio-political challenge as much as it is a technical challenge. Third-way sustainability represents the middle ground and is deliberately framed as a political compromise, not a technical innovation. The political reality is that consumption, and thus the quality of life, cannot decrease. Therefore consumption must have no environmental impact.

Policymakers must create every opportunity for capitalist and environmentalist impulses to converge and taking a global view on the world’s climate transition is the key pathway to achieving sustainable climate action.

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