Achieving zero: how are governments to reach climate neutrality in an age of permanent crisis?

By on 13/06/2022 | Updated on 21/06/2022
A Vietnamese man carries crops through a rice paddy, surrounded by tropical trees.
If governments are to achieve their net zero targets, people must feel financially secure

National governments are grappling to understand how net zero can be achieved, and world events are making that task harder still. During a GGF webinar, experts discussed some of the options available to help governments reach their goals – and why citizens’ trust must be earned if they are to be successful

For many national governments set on shrinking their carbon footprints, shooting for the stars means aiming as low as possible, at net zero emissions. If their efforts land anywhere near that mark, the outcomes will be undeniably good for people and planet. But while the goal posts remain fixed, the terrain is more hazardous than ever. At a Global Government Forum webinar, speakers discussed various ways for governments to edge closer to their targets, and what must be done to ensure no-one is left behind.

Daniel Morris is clean energy senior lead for the Climate Investment Funds (CIF), a multilateral organisation affiliated with the World Bank that supports clean technology operations in developing countries to achieve zero-carbon economies. CIF deploys flexible capital at scale to remedy institutional failures and remove barriers to climate action. By bringing together multilateral development banks (MDBs) and helping them develop relationships with governments, it aims to lower the investment costs and risks of climate finance. As Morris explained during the webinar, every dollar put in brings in US$10 from other financiers – around a third of that currently comes from the private sector, another third secured through MDBs, and the rest from national governments and bilateral aid institutions.

Daniel Morris

To demonstrate how such projects create the conditions for transformational climate action, Morris gave the example of Kazakhstan, where CIF provided the country’s first wind and utility-scale solar PV project. CIF supplied funding support for the project but it also provided technical assistance, including social impact modelling, as well as renewable energy development and legal and regulatory frameworks. Morris said such investment plans “make clear statements of alignment with relevant national policies and strategies”. Whether it is a ‘nationally determined contribution’, a five-year energy plan, or a plan to reach net zero, he said such projects have been shown to result in ‘systems thinking’ that can lead to the right sort of change.

Such investments are not limited to the aims of one project either, he added. “Once an investment plan is finished, countries can still come back and look at emerging opportunities and try to pursue some resources to achieve that.”

Also represented on the panel for the webinar – titled ‘How to get to net zero: how governments can deliver climate commitments‘ – was Advanced Bacterial Sciences (ABS). ABS is a company that designs emissions-cutting bacterial formulations to do what nature does of its own accord, but which, in the words of its CEO Gareth Hughes, “turbocharge” the effects. Hughes, who co-founded the private asset management and advisory group Climate Change Capital in 2002, has since worked as a serial entrepreneur, advising and investing in a number of companies’ projects and funds across clean energy, energy efficiency, batteries, water, waste, forestry and agriculture.

Gareth Hughes

He said that while nature is incredible in what it can do, human ingenuity can help it save itself. ABS takes a scientific approach to the treatment of waste, using non-toxic and non-pathogenic natural bacterial products to eliminate the need for high-emitting daily hygiene practices. One example of this is using energy to pump wastewater through a complex system, such as a plumbing system used by a hotel or restaurant. Hughes explained that while these systems get blocked up very quickly, bacterial solutions can break down and digest the problem, since what is waste to us is food to them.

“With our solutions, we’re reducing water, reducing waste, reducing emissions, reducing energy. It’s clean and it’s effective,” he said.

Nature-based solutions can treat nearly a third of climate impacts between now and 2030, Hughes went on to explain. The fact that they account for a growing share of contributions to the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) shows that they are effective and competitive. Hughes ended his presentation by saying that as someone who has worked “on the bleeding edge of transition to low carbon” across a range of different sectors for around 20 years, he knows what works and what doesn’t. “We have solutions. We just need to accelerate this process at scale,” he said.

The just transition  

Meelis Münt, secretary general of the ministry of environment of Estonia, said countries aiming to achieve net zero should play to their own unique strengths whilst also being wary of their weaknesses.

For Estonia, he said, there are two main areas to consider. One is phasing out oil shale, an energy source on which Estonia has depended for some time. Münt said the country is currently discussing whether to embark on a nuclear energy programme, and that its aspiration is to harness its climatic conditions to branch out into wind and solar. Whatever route Estonia or any other country pursues, government must make sure to communicate its vision, ideas and policies in a way that puts industry at ease about the journey, he said. This is a concern in Estonia, where industry leaders have complained that government policy too often lacks a clear roadmap. And it is not just leaders who want assurances either, but industry workers too. This is the second factor to consider – how to ensure that the transition to clean energy is socially just.

As Münt said, Estonia’s northeast region is where vulnerabilities to this shift are most apparent.
“In this region, there is higher income for people working in the innovation industry, but at the same time there is a much higher unemployment rate. So, the transition must be fair.”

Sharan Burrow. Photo: © HorstWagner.eu / ITUC

This emphasis on workforce equity is what Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), has focused on for more than a decade. The phrase ‘just transition’ has been widely adopted across industries and professions in recent years to represent workers’ interest. As Burrow said during the webinar, the concept isn’t new or complex and feeds off what we already know about how people and communities respond to change.

“If people don’t feel secure, if they see their communities decimated, if families lose jobs, and they see no hope for their children and grandchildren, then you get the resistance that is not going to be helpful at the speed and scale at which we have to move,” she said.

Picking up on Hughes’s comments, Burrow said that given a third of climate action gains can be made through natural solutions, there is likely scope for job creation in this field. “We know,” she said, “that for every dollar you spend, there are jobs in this environment.”

She added: “We [at the ITUC] would say to government: your role is, first, to make sure that you have the ambition in place – those national indices, they must have just transitioning in them.” Having unions at the heart of the discussion means that just transition challenges can be factored in to the wider ambition. “We cannot get to the future on exploitation,” Burrow said.

War in Europe

Earlier this year, just as the developed world had found a way out of the pandemic, came news of war in Ukraine. The conflict now influences the growing climate crisis, not least because it severely threatens key global food exports such as corn and wheat. This is already affecting the cost of living worldwide, and as ever, what stings rich countries cuts deepest in poorer nations.

Morris explained that Ukraine is one of CIF’s biggest beneficiary countries. CIF has 12 projects there, accounting for around US$339m in financing. These projects have leveraged US$3.4bn in co-financing, including in renewable energy installations, energy efficiency, and district heating.

“On top of the tragedy that the war is in and of itself, it’s also a missed opportunity to really advance an ambitious agenda in the clean energy space,” he said.

This has proven true in two ways so far, he said: first, by concentrating investment in Ukraine at the expense of projects elsewhere, and second, by pushing countries towards short-term alternative energies with long-term consequences, such as natural gas.

Meelis Münt

“Installing new natural gas infrastructure is potentially a 30-year investment, and our time is limited,” Morris said.

Münt was adamant that Estonia’s government should be ready to help those in the grips of conflict, but that it must not lose sight of its own future crises. The war and climate change overlap to form unique pain points, and added to that, there is backlash to climate action from citizens who fear it will cripple them further financially. If delivering a just transition seemed like a big challenge before the war, delivering one for both the world’s unionised workers and its squeezed middle classes is bigger still. Münt insisted, however, that reducing the world’s toxic dependency on fossil fuels remains key.    

“The green transition, the idea of a circular economy – these are exactly the measures and policies that could take us away from these dependencies on foreign trade and foreign imports, and that could fulfil the needs of our society through our own resources,” he said.

Burrow suggested that the facts underpinning governments’ net zero plans will only be accepted once societies learn to trust authority again. But given that according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, the poorest 20% of people “have lost all trust in authority”, this is no easy task. And for democracies, it is an especially worrying one. “People will vote with confidence, or they’ll vote with anxiety,” she said.

In an age of permanent crisis, citizens cannot be blamed for feeling disaffected and overwhelmed. There may well be enough private capital, political will, and civil service and scientific talent to realise net zero, but in a complex world and one in which winning back trust demands a dwindling supply of time, the stakes are as high as can be. If, however, governments can defy the odds, achieving net zero will be remembered as their biggest feat for generations to come.

The Global Government Forum webinar ‘How to get to net zero: how governments can deliver climate commitments’ was held on 24 May, with the support of ABS. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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