The future of green is win-win

By Erik Solheim, President Green Belt and Road Institute and Former Minister of Environment and International Development of Norway

To face the great environmental – and in many respects existential – challenges of our time, we need to change the way we think. Green action is not a cost. Neither is it as difficult as we tend to believe. The green shift is a huge opportunity for win-win policies.

And the good news is that the win-win formula for the green shift is embraced by the most powerful politicians on the planet and from countries that are or have historically been among the major emitters of greenhouse gas.

It is very rare to hear President Biden speak about the horrors of climate change, whether it is cyclones or droughts, rising sea levels or the melting Arctic. He takes it for granted that Americans are aware of these challenges, instead highlighting the opportunities for America to embrace a green economy. There are five times more jobs in solar than in coal already. The US auto industry can only stay competitive if it goes electric.

China, with President Xi Jinping’s «green is gold» slogan, sees the green economy as its key economic driver. China counts for half of global solar energy and is leading by far on wind energy and green hydrogen. It represents 40% of the market for electric vehicles. 99% of all electric buses drive on Chinese roads. From now to 2030 China will plant trees covering an area the size of Belgium – every year.

The European Union sees the Green New Deal not only as an isolated environmental project but as the way to save the European project and breathe life into European politics.

In India, Prime Minister Modi has shifted the debate from whether India should develop fast or protect nature to the win-win concept of green growth. India is moving decisively towards solar and green hydrogen, shelving planned coal plants and establishing the first all solar airport and the first all solar rail station in the world.  Recently he launched a major Indian green hydrogen mission with lead Indian industrialists set to pour tens of billions of dollars into it.

The foundation of win-win environmental politics is the simple fact that renewable energy is now the cheapest energy across the planet. Following the disaster that was the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, none of us participants imagined that the price of solar would decrease by 90% the decade after. Going green no longer comes at a high cost. It is good business.

The win-win idea is also critical for a fair transition to a green economy. It is clear that societies at large will benefit hugely from the green shift. We will get more and better jobs, lower prices and better health. Still, it is critical to help potential losers. Coal miners in Kentucky, USA, or in Shanxi, China, may lose out while green jobs are created in California or in Guangdong. Governments must act to alleviate this pain, establish training programmes and promote regional development. Otherwise resistance to change will be widespread. The EU is right to be putting the fair transition high on its agenda.

We need to work hard to avoid a future where young educated women in European and American cities vote green and liberal while less educated older and male voters in the countryside vote for parties that oppose the green transformation. We need politics that highlight win-win solutions not only at societal level, but also for communities and individuals.

I have attended most climate conferences since the 2007 climate change conference in Bali. The script is always the same. Huge amounts of time is spent on small diplomatic issues. After protracted talks, and long nights with no sleep and lots of strong coffee, we declare victory. Often, some small form of progress is made.

The good news is that this is ok. Climate talks, in Glasgow or elsewhere, are no longer the oxygen to global green life. Diplomats are no longer in the driving seat. Business is. The extreme fall in the price of solar energy is more significant to our struggle than texts at a conference table. President Xi’s decision to abandon Chinese overseas coal investments matters a lot more than commas in declarations. The decision of OECD members to stop funding unabated coal plants through official development assistance or export credits is a promising step to drive even more investment into clean energy.

Tesla is now more valuable than the nine next car companies in the World combined, even if it produces a small fraction of the cars of Volkswagen, Toyota, Ford and others. Markets believe electric mobility is the future.

Certainly, stronger action at home, in many OECD and major emerging economies to phase out coal and fossil fuels and remove harmful subsidies is necessary and urgent. These are unavoidable changes. They will require long-term vision, political commitment and public and private investment. They will also require clear communication and well-crafted support measures for the most vulnerable populations and those most affected by the transition to low carbon development models. Stressing the opportunities, the win-win of the green shift, while acknowledging the costs that need to be mitigated is the way to go.

It takes courage for politicians to lead the low-carbon transition, especially amidst the current energy situation, and when it could put their re-election at risk. But many more voices in society support such a courageous shift: not only climate activists, but central bankers, sovereign fund managers, financial companies and enterprises.

Climate action taken by Microsoft, IKEA, Tesla, Alibaba, Reliance and many more can be transformational and spur imitation if policy makers provide clear roadmaps and regulatory frameworks.

The transition to low-carbon development models affects all segments of society and requires government action in all policy domains. For this reason, the OECD, home to policy networks spanning the whole-of-government spectrum, has a critical role to play to drive the debate on the win-win solutions of a green transition and create the can do spirit which will lead us to success. 

Let’s just do it!