Hi there! Welcome to the latest edition of Climate Focus. This will also be the last edition for the year. I am taking a break for the end of the year and will be back with an edition on the 7th of January, 2022.
I want to start today’s edition with a bit of gratitude.
2021 has been a special year for many reasons. One of them is that I started this newsletter. I’d have laughed it off if someone had told me at the start of the year that I’d be writing publicly, let alone consistently.
I’d have fallen off my chair if someone told me that I’d write a weekly climate newsletter that is read by wonderful friends and kind strangers.
Thank you for being a part of my special year!
For this edition, I have a rather unique request to make.
If you can help it, do not read this newsletter right now or this weekend. Enjoy the holidays and the festive fervour and spend time with friends, family and loved ones.
Again, if you can help it, open this newsletter on Monday or sometime next week. Grab a cup of coffee or a warm comforting beverage and read on.
Because, I’d like to talk to you about why I started this newsletter.
I wrote 15 posts this year. I started with a two-part series titled Climate Change, Ping-pong, Morality & More (Part 1 and Part 2) that is very special to me. I refer to it as my long-form climate manifesto but it is a little more than that. The two parts together helped me put a wicked problem in perspective.
Here is a TL; DR version of the two parts (although I’d really like for you to (re-)read them if you can)
governments and the most consequential game of (metaphorical) ping-pong they play with climate,
how climate scientists live in the grey in a world that expects everything to be black-and-white,
how evolution simultaneously gave us a superpower and a self-destruction tool by allowing our brains the ability to condense complex information into digestible pieces
the quandary of what we should do to tackle climate change and who pays for it
irresponsible climate coverage by mainstream media
morality in consumption and the very real peril of climate bigotry towards the uninitiated
I did not hold back when I wrote these pieces, because I was equal parts pissed at the problem and equal parts hopeful about what’s to come.
And these two equal parts will explain why I started this newsletter.
Why I was/ am pissed
I wasn’t pissed at human actions and the rate at which our planet is changing. Our starting point isn’t 200 years ago, but now.
But humour me here. Imagine today is the 24th of December but in the 1800s. (Also, here’s a pertinent GIF that explains the state of affairs in the US in the 1800s)
It is a few decades into this new wave everybody is calling an ‘Industrial Revolution’. Cotton manufacturing is mechanised and the garment industry is exponentially increasing output; steam-powered engines are beginning to use a fifth of the fuel they were historically using and delivering increasing horsepower with every passing decade; patents for portland cement are being filed and concrete is becoming commonplace in building construction; farming at an industrial-scale is now possible, thanks to mechanised equipment.
All these are as amazing for that time as the internet, telemedicine, electric vehicles are to our current reality.
Whether it is the 24th of December in 1821 or 2021, we are equally awestruck by how our days and lives are dramatically changing by these new innovations.
One thing that humanity is infamous for is prioritising the present. The present is a certainty; anything in the future is a probability. We were/ are very flippant when it comes to understanding the odds of a habitable planet.
None of what I just said pisses me off. What is between the lines is what does.
I am pissed because we are aggravating a two-century long problem without learning from it.
Energy and attention goes towards where the incentives are.
I am fairly certain steam-powered engines were not achieving exponential growth in fuel efficiency because we wanted to use less fuel. It was a 112% (the additional 12% is arbitrary, but relays the point) because we wanted to transport more goods at lower costs.
Just like Amazon isn’t employing brilliant minds to shave a few seconds from every time a truck enters a warehouse till it docks to find the theoretical limits to fulfilling an order.
Incentives are stacked towards lowering costs of technologies that aren’t planet-friendly.
Why I was/ am hopeful
What I am pissed about is the exact same reason that gives me hope.
(At the risk of repeating myself in close succession,) energy and attention goes towards where the incentives are. The only way to achieve efficiencies in low-emissions technologies is to incentivise it.
In an ideal world, true costs of goods and services will reflect costs of emissions. It didn’t in 1821. It doesn’t in 2021. But it doesn’t have to continue to be that way.
Taxing high-emissions technologies is a sure-shot way to transition to low-emission technologies. This is in effect in some countries in the form of a carbon tax. (Here is what a carbon tax is and a list of countries where it is currently implemented)
But we can only do a carbon tax incrementally. Why? I will give you a reason by way of an excerpt from Edition #3.
Austria tried to introduce a carbon tax in 1991. It succeeded in its endeavour earlier this month. (October 2021)
A carbon tax essentially charges for every unit of pollution, and is implemented by the government at at a manufacturer-level or at a consumer-level. The idea is to make emissions unattractive by putting a price to it, and nudging businesses and citizens towards low-carbon alternatives.
Austria has priced it at €30 per tonne of Carbon, rising to €55 by 2025.
This is substantially low compared to Sweden, the gold-standard for carbon taxes which has priced it at €120 per tonne (the highest in the world). When Sweden introduced the tax, also in 1991 but (evidently) with a different outcome, it was priced at €24 per tonne then. Studies suggest that a carbon tax around the range of Sweden’s will be required by 2030 for achieving most of developed countries’ climate pledges.
In 1991, both Austria and Sweden tried to implement a carbon tax. One succeeded and is considered the gold standard. The other failed and introduced a sub-optimal tax structure in 2021.
Q: Why was Sweden successful where Austria wasn’t?
A: They didn’t endlessly debate a perfect solution. Imperfect but implementable solution is far better than a perfect solution that is never implemented.
Environmentalists might disagree with me on the adequacy of an imperfect solution. I only have one thing to say. Environmentalism and climate action do not have similar agendas.
However, both are equally important and must go hand-in-hand with each other. Environmentalism ensures that the climate agenda is on top of everyone’s minds. Climate action advances the climate agenda in board rooms and democracies and ensures incremental tangible steps, like a tax on high emissions technologies or a carbon tax.
Neither climate action nor environmentalism will achieve a 100% of what they want to, together or independently, but it is important to realise that they are on the same side.
Now that we understand what environmentalism and climate action can and should do, let us consider the best case scenario for both these groups - an elimination of emissions.
The unfortunate reality is that even if we magically convince everyone that fossil fuels are bad and get them to turn off that metaphorical switch, there is no alternative that will step in and cut it.
Low emissions technologies aren’t quite there YET and are super expensive. It won’t be that way for too long if…
… we incentivise it.
Just like we did with steam-engines in 1821, just like solar panels and battery technologies in 2021, just like the countless other everyday things that you see -energy and attention goes towards where the incentives are.
All it takes for sustained action to address climate change is to incentivise the right things, and in this case, low emission technologies and penalise high emission technologies.
And that is why I am hopeful of what’s to come.
(Two) parting thoughts
#1/ Starting points
The wonderful friends and kind strangers that I alluded to who read my newsletter do not need someone like me or a climate journalist to tell them how complex climate change is.
While others need to be told what it is and how it affects us to begin with.
And it’s okay. But we need to discern between different starting points for people on their climate journey.
#2/ That human urge to…
The second thing humanity is infamous for (besides prioritising the present as I mentioned at the start of the post) is a persistent *need* to fix something, anything. We do it for a few reasons, but the most important one in my view is to feel like we are in control.
While discussing complex systems and the changes it is undergoing, we have an internal narrative that is constantly optimising for a solution. We switch off when we don’t hear a solution or we anchor on a sub-optimal solution.
Climate action starts with understanding the problem and how it affects us and the people around us.
Then comes what you can do about it. And it’s iterative. It’s different for different people. Sure, there are few things set in stone that are non-negotiable, but there individual climate action comes with the quintessential human agony (Do consider reading Edition #5 where I write about this very agony).
Do you take a 3-hour flight to go visit your ageing parents or take a 36-hour train journey that is deeply uncomfortable in every sense of the word? (That is a personal example)
Climate action is not a one-off fix or arguing about what’s planet-friendly or creating and sustaining new habits. And we all know how difficult it is to do that. We can just ask our annual gym membership or our very comical attempt to cutting sugar from our diets or any other *sweeping* change we make to our lives on a daily basis.