BAU won’t work

A few words from Peter Mandelson on trade and climate change:

Trade is our basic means for spreading green technology. Carbon emissions
targets rely on the political and social will to change the way we do things.
But they also rely on the technologies that will enable us to change. Those
technologies are goods and services that are traded like any other.

So far, so conventional. In fact quite hard to argue with, in strictly economic terms. The obvious difficulty with Mandelson’s position is that it assumes that there is a match between need for environmental action and the money needed to take that action. But green technology goes to those who are willing to buy it, and they are not the same people as those who either want or can afford green technology. Trade is helpful in some respects – it greases certain kinds of economic wheel, and Mandelson may well be right to say that:

This is, in my opinion, the most important potential contribution of trade policy to the climate agenda. So we have to get it right.

But the problem we have with the environment is so much greater – much greater is size and scope and vastly more urgent – than anything trade alone could deal with that the very notion that trade might be even a major part of the overall solution – leaves one feeling slightly queasy.

Like almost everything else about the current climate debate at governmental level, this position assumes that ‘business as usual’ is a viable option. A bit more trade, some pretty substantial technical fixes, little more pump-priming investment, a little judicious regulation, and there we are.

Only we’re not, of course. The whole ‘business as usual’ approach is based on a single fatal assumption, namely that have time. Hence the extraordinary folly of senior government officials (starting with presidents and prime ministers) to the effect that ‘green’ and ‘growth’ are compatible. There is a formal economic sense in which that is perhaps true, but not in the sense that most governments seem to mean.

So what is the problem? Simple: the world’s economy ceased to be sustainable a quarter of a century ago. Sometime around 1980, we started to use the Earth’s resources more quickly than they could be replenished. Now, when the global economy is twice the size it was then, our collective ecological footprint is well over 1.25 times Earth’s entire carrying capacity.

So what would regulating or shaping trade on better ecological terms add? It would help us to make an awful situation get worse at a slightly reduced rate. Not much of an accomplishment.

What exactly is it that government’s don’t ‘get’ about our present predicament? In a word, that all their basic assumptions about a viable economy are simply false. Most of all, they don’t get it that the idea that economies can grow indefinitely is not only false in principle (you only have to be numerate to recognise that) but it is urgent, murderously, catastrophically false right now. We are already committed to serious environmental change even if we could stop growth this very instant, and every year we leave doing something about it, the more environmental change – and then damage, and then disaster – we are also committed to. But our governments are simply not taking this fact on board.

And there’s little point in Mandelson and other apologists for free trade asserting that:

Any strategy for addressing climate change that does not respect the right
of developing countries to a level of economic prosperity broadly equivalent to
ours simply will not fly in the developing world. An approach to climate change
that kicks away the ladder from the developing world simply won’t work. So we
are going to have to break the link between economic growth and rising carbon
emissions through new power sources, more efficient energy use and new patterns
of behaviour, not by stifling economic growth.

This is complete nonsense. If we do not stop economic growth – at least in the sense of forms of economic activity that increase environmental damage – ASAP, it is the developing world that will suffer first and suffer worst. Equity in the current situation is a utopian dream – and I say that as a socialist for whom equity is the sine qua non of civilisation.

The fact is that there is no existing version of economic development for the developing world that is ecologically viable. There might be if the developed countries were willing to pay for it, but when has that ever happened? It is the developed countries far more than the developing that are committed to growth, who are causing much the most environmental damage per person and who will have the most trouble turning their economies around. But they also hold the whip hand when it comes to future development. If a country like China or India continues to develop industrially willy-nilly, it is they who will suffer from it. What would either of these countries do for water with the Himalaya glaciers gone? How will India and Pakistan or Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam look at each other when the Indus and Ganges, the Yangtze Kiang, the Huang Ho and the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Brahmaputra are all starting to run dry for a large part of the year?

No, these countries can afford the ecological consequences of climate change even less than wealthy western countries. And we have never shown any real interest in doing anything about it. What, short of a major ideological, political and economic upheaval will change that? Better trade agreements? I don’t think so.

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