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The global environment in 2050: a realist and liberal democratic perspective

By Chris Lewis - posted Monday, 2 March 2020


Can we be optimistic about the planet’s environmental future given humanity’s pursuit of economic growth and a rising global population, which results in greater greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of many important forests around the world?

While humanity thus far has proven innovative enough to ensure a better way of life for an increasing number of people, it is difficult for any sane person to deny the reality that much greater pressure is being placed on the planet in terms of the economic-environmental balance.

But, from my liberal democratic perspective, one that strongly believes such societies are more likely to address emerging policy problems to a much greater extent than less democratic entities, just how effective can liberal democratic nations be with regard to influencing global environmental outcomes by 2050?

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In reality, despite increasing global environmental awareness in recent decades, the affluent liberal democracies have inspired a way of life that has delivered both economic gain and environmental degradation, a trend enabled by technological improvements, freer trade, and the production of much cheaper manufactured goods in developing countries.

For example, and in line with one estimate that households account for around 75% of global carbon emissions through the demand for consumer products, annual global car production has continued to increase from about 34-40 million vehicles in the 1990s to 60 million in the 2010s.

While a 2019 Greenpeace report notes that the carbon footprint of the global car industry was around 9% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, three of the eight biggest car markets are now outside the OECD. In 2018, China had car sales of 22.49 million, the United States (US) 14.30 million, Japan 3.70 million, Germany 3.15 million, India 2.86 million, UK 2.36 million, France 2.19 million and Brazil 2.02 million.

And now, with the Western consumption of goods becoming less important in terms of their carbon footprint as more and more consumer goods are purchased by non-OECD nations, Western nations  have even less ability to influence global environmental problems.

Hence, based on the economic development of India and China alone, global greenhouse gas emissions will be extremely difficult to reduce in coming decades, despite China contributing around a third of the global renewables investment in 2018 ($US91.2 billion), much higher than the US ($US48.5 billion) and Europe ($US61.2 billion).

To meet the energy needs of its 1.4 billion population, China still used coal for 59% of its energy assumption in 2018 while natural gas, hydropower, nuclear power and wind power was 22.1 per cent.

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With coal alone contributing 30% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis notes that China and India currently account for 60.2% of global electricity generated by coal with the US and the European Union (EU) accounting for 11.1% and 5.2% given their greater use of natural gas and renewables. 

Any hope that India and China will reduce their coal use may depend on internal political pressure, as already indicated by some pressure for reform.

In India, with burning by Indian farmers at times “exacerbating the cloud of toxins already spewed by power plants, factories, vehicles, and stoves”, India’s government has distributed more than 700,000 solar cookers in recent years and added more than 34 million residential gas connections with a further 80 million more planned by 2020.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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