Now is the time for a World Carbon Bank

The Guardian, July 2019 excerpt

It is high time to create a new, focused agency, a World Carbon Bank, that provides a vehicle for advanced economies to coordinate aid and technical transfer, and that is not simultaneously trying to solve every other development problem. Yes, I fully understand that the current US administration is reluctant to fund even existing international institutions. But the west cannot retreat from a world of intertwined climate responsibilities.

According to the International Energy Agency – one of the few honest brokers in the global climate-change debate and a model on which a new World Carbon Bank research department could build – annual CO2 emissions in Asia are now double that of the US, and triple that of Europe. In advanced economies, where the average age of coal plants is 42 years, many are reaching the natural end of their lifespan, and it is not a great burden to phase them out. But in Asia, where one new coal plant a week is being built, the average age is only 11 years, and most will be running for decades to come.

Coal accounts for over 60% of electricity generation in rapidly growing China and India. Even though both countries are investing heavily in renewables such as solar and wind power, their energy needs are simply growing too fast to cast aside widely available coal. How can the US arrogantly tell India to cut back on CO2 emissions that are only one-tenth those of the US? For that matter, how can the US persuade Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazilian government to cut back on Amazon deforestation (rainforests are nature’s carbon sink) and development without providing some concrete incentives? There are many options for trying to reduce carbon emissions. Most economists (including me) favour a global carbon tax, though some argue that the more politically digestible cap-and-trade formula can be virtually as effective. But this is pie in the sky for developing-country governments desperate to meet their people’s basic energy needs. In Africa, only 43% of people have access to electricity, versus 87% worldwide.

Ignorant presidents aside, most serious researchers see the risk of catastrophic climate change as perhaps the greatest existential threat facing the world in the 21st century. The effects are already with us, whether record heat on the US west coast and in Europe, epic flooding in Iowa, or the impact of climate risks on the price of home insurance, which is rising beyond the reach of many people. And today’s refugee problem is nothing compared with what the world faces as equatorial regions become too hot and too arid to sustain agriculture, and as the number of climate migrants explodes to perhaps 1 billion or more by the end of the century.

The US military is readying itself for the threat. Back in 2013, the chief of the US Pacific forces, Admiral Samuel J Locklear, listed long-term climate change as the biggest national security threat. Given grave doubts about whether existing measures, such as the 2015 Paris climate agreement, are likely to do more than slightly slow down global warming, pragmatists are right to see preparing for the worst as a grim necessity.

Advanced economies need to put their own environmental house in order. But it will not be nearly enough if developing Asia, and perhaps someday developing Africa, are not also placed on a different development track. A new World Carbon Bank is almost surely a necessary piece of any comprehensive solution, even given the miraculous technological developments everyone is hoping for.

How much it will cost depends on assumptions and ambitions, but one can easily imagine $1tn (£800bn) over 10 years. Crazy? Maybe not, compared with the alternatives. Even a Green New Deal is better than a Green No Deal.

Kenneth Rogoff is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University. He was the IMF’s chief economist from 2001-03.

Cornell: Rising seas could result in 2 billion refugees by 2100 By Blaine Friedlander |  June 19, 2017

Mekong Delta

Mike Hoffmann/ProvidedRising sea levels – such as those at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam – will force residents inland.

In the year 2100, 2 billion people – about one-fifth of the world’s population – could become climate change refugees due to rising ocean levels. Those who once lived on coastlines will face displacement and resettlement bottlenecks as they seek habitable places inland, according to Cornell research the journal Land Use Policy, July 2017.

“We’re going to have more people on less land and sooner that we think,” said lead author Charles Geisler, professor emeritus of development sociology. “The future rise in global mean sea level probably won’t be gradual. Yet few policy makers are taking stock of the significant barriers to entry that coastal climate refugees, like other refugees, will encounter when they migrate to higher ground.”

Earth’s escalating population is expected to top 9 billion people by 2050 and climb to 11 billion people by 2100, according to a United Nations report. Feeding that population will require more arable land even as swelling oceans consume fertile coastal zones and river deltas, driving people to seek new places to dwell.

By 2060, about 1.4 billion people could be climate change refugees, according to the paper. Geisler extrapolated that number to 2 billion by 2100. 

“The colliding forces of human fertility, submerging coastal zones, residential retreat, and impediments to inland resettlement is a huge problem. We offer preliminary estimates of the lands unlikely to support new waves of climate refugees due to the residues of war, exhausted natural resources, declining net primary productivity, desertification, urban sprawl, land concentration, ‘paving the planet’ with roads and greenhouse gas storage zones offsetting permafrost melt,” Geisler said.

Along with co-author Ben Currens ’12, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, Geisler wrote “Impediments to Inland Resettlement Under Conditions of Accelerated Sea Level Rise” with funding from the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences’ Contested Global Landscapes Project.

The paper describes tangible solutions and proactive adaptations in places like Florida and China, which coordinate coastal and interior land-use policies in anticipation of weather-induced population shifts.

Florida has the second-longest coastline in the United States, and its state and local officials have planned for a coastal exodus, Geisler said, in the state’s Comprehensive Planning Act.

Beyond sea level rise, low-elevation coastal zones in many countries face intensifying storm surges that will push sea water further inland. Historically, humans have spent considerable effort reclaiming land from oceans, but now live with the opposite – the oceans reclaiming terrestrial spaces on the planet,” said Geisler. In their research, Geisler and Currens explore a worst-case scenario for the present century.

The authors note that the competition of reduced space that they foresee will induce land-use trade-offs and conflicts. In the United States and elsewhere, this could mean selling off public lands for human settlement.

Said Geisler: “The pressure is on us to contain greenhouse gas emissions at present levels. It’s the best ‘future proofing’ against climate change, sea level rise and the catastrophic consequences likely to play out on coasts, as well as inland in the future.”


Figure of the week: Electricity access in Africa

Nirav Patel, March 29, 2019 AFRICA IN FOCUS, Brookings

Earlier this month, the World Bank released its Electricity Access in sub-Saharan Africa report. The report measures the status quo of access to electricity, compares the nuances of regional and country variations in access to electricity, and identifies some root impediments to increasing access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Author Nirav Patel

Research Analyst – Global Economy and Development

The lack of access to electricity primarily constrains modern economic activities, provision of public services, and quality of life. In addition, it severely limits adoption of emerging technologies in sectors such as banking, education, agriculture, and finance that could otherwise alleviate some of the core challenges facing Africans, such as low productive employment opportunities and limited healthcare.

Figure 1 below from the report gives an idea of how far Africa is lagging compared to the world and the variation within the continent. Its current average 43 percent access rate to electricity is half of the global access rate of 87 percent. The report also warns that the current number of people without electricity will continue with Africa’s population boom.

Figure 1. Access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa

Figure 1. Access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa
Figure 1. Access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, b. Households with electricity, latest available data (percent)

Source: World Bank World Development Indicators; Demographic and Health Surveys; Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys; national surveys.

Note: In “panel a,” high-income countries are excluded. In “panel b,” recent data are not available for Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, and South Sudan. Latin America and Caribbean and Middle East and North Africa have a near perfect overlap on the figure.

One of the constraints the report emphasizes is the cost of electricity provision. In particular, Figure 2 from the report uniquely shows the cost constraint by benchmarking how much it would cost to power a refrigerator for a year. While the cost is negligent for all advanced economies, for most African economies it is substantial and far more burdensome than for the rest of the world. With this, the report highlights expensive utility service cost as a barrier to electricity access.

Figure 2. Price of powering a refrigerator for a year as a percentage of GDP per capita

Figure 2. Price of powering a refrigerator for a year as a percentage of GDP per capita

Another impediment the report investigates is how electricity outages influence employment, as seen in Figure 3. The strong negative relationship between more outages and employment reduces the probability of employment by approximately 35 percent in a community. This impact is even more pronounced for the nonfarm sector (55 percent), but surprisingly slightly less impactful (27 percent) for high-skilled employment, given many high-skilled jobs require electricity. The findings suggest improving electricity reliability merits attention, not just access to electricity.

Figure 3. Effects of electricity outages on employment

Figure 3. Effects of electricity outages on employment

Source: Mensah 2018.

Note: The reported coefficients are of outages in a community using the instrumental variable regression approach.*** p < 0.01.