Make climate change an economic - not green - issue, urges ex-president of Maldives

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 6 April 2017 22:34 GMT

Workers clean photovoltaic panels inside a solar power plant in Gujarat, India, in this July 2, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Amit Dave/Files

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The world needs to package the benefits of a low-carbon transition in way "political parties can embrace", says Mohamed Nasheed

By Laurie Goering

OXFORD, England, April 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Winning effective action on climate change will require treating the problem less as an environmental or human rights crisis and more as a sensible economic shift, the former Maldives president said Thursday.

"While it remains an ethical or human rights issue, it's not so easy to have it in your political manifesto," Mohamed Nasheed said, pointing to climate change's political divisiveness in the United States.

But any politician, he said, can win votes by promising more jobs and a stronger economy – something eminently achievable if the world transitions to cleaner and more sustainable energy, a move that also would bring environmental and social benefits.

The world needs to package the benefits of a low-carbon transition in a way "that political parties can embrace", said Nasheed, speaking at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford.

Some populist politicians are already persuaded on the economic benefits of stepping up climate action, said Samir Saran, vice president of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, which works on policy responses to problems facing India.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, aims to put in place 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022 – approaching the entire electrical generating capacity of Germany today, Saran said.

The aim is not primarily to fight climate change, but to develop the country – and cut poverty – in the quickest, most effective and most sustainable way, he said.

India, by developing without large amounts of fossil fuels, "will be the first country in the world to create a new model of growth that will be exportable to the whole world", Saran predicted – a point of national pride and a potential route to economic success.

REJECT CLEAN ENERGY, REJECT LEADERSHIP

Nasheed, who was ousted from the Maldives presidency in a 2012 coup, said he didn't believe that the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is trying to reverse action on climate change and promote dirty fuels such as coal, would have any significant impact on countries like China and India as they push ahead on clean energy.

"If you are unable to embrace the new technology, embrace the future, you cannot be the future leader" of the world, he warned Trump.

"The United States wants to relinquish their world leadership. They can do that," said Nasheed, who now lives in exile in Britain. "But it's not going to stop the rest of the world. And it's not even going to stop the United States from transforming."

In particular, when it comes to coal, "you can love coal as much as you want" but it won't become a dominant fuel again in the United States because the economics don't make sense, he said.

However, Sharon Burke, an assistant secretary of defense under former President Barack Obama, warned that climate change has become such a politically divisive issue in the United States that turning it back into an economic issue – regardless of how much sense it makes – will be hugely challenging.

"I'm not sure how we chart our way back to that, and I'm not sure we can because of the money and the vested interests involved in the dialogue," said Burke, now an international security adviser with New America, a Washington-based political think tank.

Meanwhile, "you can't over estimate how destructive this President could be to this agenda" of moving to clean energy and protecting climate stability, she warned.

BANKERS A BARRIER

Saran, however, said he thought the more serious obstacle to rapid expansion of clean energy was foot dragging by the world's bankers.

"There's one major actor still not signed on to the Paris climate deal, and unless we bring them on, energy leapfrogging will be more difficult," he said.

Banks are not directing enough money to India's huge-scale clean energy push, for instance, Nasheed and Saran said, for a big range of reasons, from the quick pace of technological change to worries about risk in developing countries, vested interests and just greater comfort in lending to things they're already familiar with.

That was in evidence Thursday, as the Green Climate Fund - which aims to help poorer countries develop cleanly and adapt to climate impacts – agreed to provide cash for a large hydropower dam in Tajikistan but balked at spending $100 million to help farmers and herders in Ethiopia become more resilient to drought.

"Bankers are really familiar with concrete and steel, so every workable solution is concrete and steel," Nasheed said.

Saran said banks need to realise that moving money for clean energy and climate resilience is good business.

"We need the bankers to sign up to this deal," he said. "Unless we can change the way big funds and bank banks (behave), we might fall short of what we really need to be doing – which is much more."

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Astrid Zweynert :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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