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Wednesday
Mar272013

Like the Beyond2030 Facebook Page

Wow, it turns out to be pretty challenging to make time for regular posts here. I have a couple of good ones brewing in my head and I intend to publish them very soon. In the meantime, please know that since a month or so, I have also created a Beyond2030 Facebook Page which I use for short, micro-blog posts.

Check it out: www.facebook.com/beyond2030

Tuesday
Nov062012

Redistribution of wealth is a good idea - for both sides of the aisle

Distribution of wealth is one of the important issues of this year's US elections. One could also say it is one of the key issues that defines whether you are a Democrat or a Republican - and in most other countries, whether you vote for a left-wing or a right-wing candidate. For people who vote on the left side of the political spectrum, reducing inequality feels like the ethical thing to do, for those on the right, redistribution of wealth sounds like communism or socialism and they won't hesitate to refer to the obvious historical failures of those models. At first sight it sounds like a clear-cut ideological divide where it really depends on your personal beliefs and background. However it seems that more and more scientific research comes available that argues there can only be one sensible answer.

An increasing number of countries starts looking at other factors than simply Gross Domestic Product as an indicator for success of governmental policy, as it does not adequately reflect human happiness and well being. Bhutan famously started this movement in the 70s by reporting their yearly Gross National Happiness. In April this year, the UN General Assembly organized its first Conference on Happiness, featuring the prominent US economist Jeff Sachs, pointing out that although the US' GDP has tripled since 1960, the happiness of its citizens has not increased. Once you start to include the ecological footprint that is required to achieve a certain level of happiness, as done by the Happy Planet Index, one can easily see that the US' performance has even dropped significantly over the last 50 years. Yet despite the fact that it is really hard to argue against using happiness rather than GDP as our fundamental human goal (provided that "happiness" is calculated correctly, which is a different argument), it remains far from the agenda of most political leaders.

Happy Planet Index Rating

Of course is having a reasonable income an important means to achieve personal happiness. You need it to feed yourself, to provide shelter, healthcare and education for yourself and your family. A Princeton study done by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has shown that your happiness does increase with increasing income, but it levels off at a (stable) salary of 75,000 USD per year. Beyond that threshold, "individuals' emotional well-being is constrained by other factors in their temperament and life circumstances." 

What are some of the factors, besides achieving that stable income of 75,000 USD/year, that affect our happiness? Nobody can deny that issues like the life expectancy, crime rate, the literacy rate, the levels of trust in society, obesity, mental illness, stress etc. are important elements that affect our average happiness. It turns out that all of these factors directly correllate with the level of inequality of a society, as explained by Richard Wilkinson in his TED talk.

Countries with a high level of inequality (US, Singapore, UK, Australia) are doing worse on all of these factors compared to countries with a relatively low level of inequality (Norway, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands). Wilkinson even demonstrates that not only is it better to reduce inequality for the happiness of society as a whole, also it is better for the happiness of the individuals in the highest income percentile. Note that reducing inequality doesn't mean making everybody equal and turning to communism (as Republicans like to phrase it), it just means making the differences in income less extreme than they are now.

In order words, research shows that reducing inequality is a good thing for everyone, whether you are rich or poor, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.

 

Friday
Aug172012

Be a smart frog and jump out now!

Heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the U.S., floods in the Philippines, the accelerated melting of arctic sea ice and Japan forecasting yet another El Nino pattern for the fall: These recent news items are showing us that our modest start in global warming is already enough to destabilize our climate and cause havoc and destruction around the world. However we are currently at an average global temperature that is “only” 0.8 degrees warmer than what it was prior to the industrial revolution, whereas we all agreed at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that we should stay below 2 degrees at all costs. The fact that we will reach that limit within the next two decades (see my previous post) is hardly debated anymore these days, the only difference is that the optimists believe that we will touch it as our peak temperature and then trail down because we will have successfully curbed our emissions, while the pessimists say that we remain stubborn and/or ignorant, that we will break through the limit and blindly continue to race on upwards towards our fatal self-destruction.

Irrespective of what side you are on, let us try to imagine what approaching the 2 degree limit will look like. Imagine several hurricanes hitting the US East Coast every year, a North Pole without ice, rising sea levels affecting highly populated areas, more droughts and wild fires, more floods, harvests ruined, sky-rocketing food prices, water shortages, migration of people from areas that have become inhabitable... Is it realistic to think that in such a scenario, the general consensus of the public will still be that we can continue to emit CO2 safely? Is it not safe to assume that by then at least a larger part of the world has come to its senses and started to reduce emissions? And to achieve that, that we have started to put a (significant) price on carbon emissions?

If while reading the previous sentences you are still saying to yourself: No, that is not going to happen; the world’s political systems have proven to be incapable to come to a global treaty on carbon emissions; we absolutely need cheap fossil fuels for our economic growth - then realize what you are implying: The destruction of our civilization is inevitable, all our children can do is try to survive as long as they can and pray for a miracle. Personally I tend to stay away from such fatalism - because then why not simply give up now?

So what does this mean? In the next two decades we will either live in a world with a significant price on carbon emissions, or alternatively, we will live in a dying world where nothing really matters anymore. Accepting this inevitable reality earlier than the majority will give you an advantage.

For individuals this means, anticipate for leading a low-carbon life and start investing in measures to reduce your personal dependence on fossil fuels (e.g. rooftop solar, proper insulation, lower transportation needs, etc).

For businesses, imagine the competitive advantage you will have if you have switched over to lower or less carbon-intensive energy demanding processes. The moment that carbon tax is implemented, you will leave your less-forward-thinking competitors behind in the dust. Companies like Google and now also Facebook, with their huge energy requirements for their data centers, know what is coming and they are acting now - even if their government is still in denial.

Governments too will do well by accepting this reality earlier than later. For policymakers it is important to remember that - bearing in mind the rate of carbon reduction that will be required - decision on long term investments in the power sector made today will have to be turned around before the anticipated payback period is achieved (e.g. a gas-fired power plant that needs to be shutdown before it has reached the end of its economic life).

Just because most frogs stay in the pot that is slowly being brought to a boil, doesn’t mean that you have to do the same. Jump out of that pot, now!

 

Tuesday
Jun262012

Climate Change: Are you sure you are past denial?

Please watch the following YouTube video that I made, explaining in less than 12 minutes the fundamentals of Climate Change, its implications for the near future and the urgency for action.

It is based on my own research over the last couple of months and I was certainly inspired after reading Paul Gilding's book The Great Disruption. I initially presented part of this material Pecha Kucha-style at a Nerd Night in Phnom Penh in January 2012, but I refined the content and expiremented with a for me new way of presenting using Prezi.

I look forward to hearing your comments and please do share!

 

Monday
Jun112012

Providing energy to the poor in the face of climate change

ADB's Asia Clean Energy Forum 2012 Plenary session with 840 participants

Last week I attended the Asia Clean Energy Forum in Manila, hosted by the Asian Development Bank. I was impressed by their mission statement:

The Asian Development Bank aims for an Asia and Pacific free from poverty. Approximately 1.8 billion people in the region are poor and unable to access essential goods, services, assets and opportunities to which every human is entitled.

That sounds like a clear and powerful statement from which its employees should have no trouble drawing inspiration for their work. However it turns out that when this mission is applied to the forum's topic, climate change and renewable energy, its translation into action becomes less unambiguous.

An important theme in ADB's response is "Energy For All", aiming to bring basic energy needs to 700 million Asians currently still without access to electricity, an essential step in poverty alleviation. The forum spent several days worth of parallel sessions on previous successes and future plans on how to achieve that using clean energy solutions, like solar, wind, geothermal, mini-grids etc. However in between the lines, we could also learn that ADB still funds some coal and gas fired power plants. In the case of Mongolia for example, "it's can be so cold there, we simply cannot deny the Mongolians affordable means for heating their homes". In other words, ADB provides energy access to the poor by means of clean energy where it is available and where it can be affordable, but when clean energy doesnt work out, ADB still provides energy access through conventional means.

This appears to be a sound approach for a development bank whose mission is to eradicate poverty. But let us consider what climate science tells us: once we reach CO2 concentration levels of 450 ppm, our global climate is likely to spiral out of control, causing massive droughts and floods, tropical storms and sea level rise, sending billions of people back into extreme poverty. We are currently near 400 ppm and we are on a trajectory that will take us to 450 within the next two decades. Asia's hunger for energy, particularly in the form of cheap coal fired power plants, will be the biggest contributor  in getting us from 400 to 450. So you could argue that ADB by supporting conventional energy projects, coal in particular, is alleviating poverty now by contributing to an even worse poverty situation in two decades from now.

This brings to the surface a nasty moral dilemma that is very hard to address, and there are multiple reasons to justify ADB's approach: The energy needs of the poor are in need of acute solutions, denying those would be inhumane, and the 450 ppm limit is a prediction, not a hard fact. However during the five-day conference I have not been able to find proof of this explicit reasoning within the organization. Don't get me wrong, I believe the "Energy For All" program should probably continue its original path. I just hope that behind the scenes in ADB there are people who acknowledge this moral dilemma, who explicitly evaluate the possible strategies and their respective outcomes, and make a conscious decision on whether they should continue or adjust their policies to achieve their mission: alleviate poverty today AND tomorrow.