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Digital Green Industrialisation: Reconciling Global Equality and Sustainable Development?


Published: Mateus L. Labrunie, and artwork by Ryan Ward

The environmental issue that I find most disturbing as a development economist is the claim that if developing countries’ consumption levels reached those of the world’s most developed countries, there would be insufficient resources on the planet to sustain it. Diamond calculates that this situation would be similar to having 80 billion people at current average consumption levels. While there can be some discussion as to whether we could sustain the consumption of slightly more than our current 7.7 billion people, it is pretty clear that there simply would not be enough resources, including energy, water, minerals and agricultural products to sustain 10 times more.

If we assume that current rates of resource use will remain constant, the world is either condemned to have a large group of countries in low levels of consumption, with a significant part of their populations in poverty, or bound to head towards an environmental catastrophe. This raises the question of whether it is possible to reconcile global equality between countries with environmental sustainability.

There are two contested ways to reconcile both of these objectives. The first involves a generalized change in mindset away from consumerism, reducing the consumption aspirations in developing countries and current averages in developed ones. This is argued by the authors of the de-growth literature. What is envisaged is a world of simpler lives, with more attention paid to basic human needs and less to what Veblen calls “conspicuous consumption” – goods and services designed for the public display of social status and economic power. The second approach would be a drastic increase in the efficiency of resource use, achieving a similar average output but with a drastically lower throughput, making it possible to sustain our current consumptions. 

The problem with the first option is that a generalized change in mindset is, in addition to being highly unlikely in the short-term, incompatible with capitalism. If one accepts the Keynesian principle of effective demand, it becomes clear that a generalized reduction in consumption in capitalist economies leads to a decrease in economic activity. This, in turn, gives rise to many social issues such as unemployment, wage reductions, less social welfare and financial crisis risk. These could even result in social unrest that would seek to dismiss the environmental agenda as a priority. Capitalist economies need a growth of demand in order to survive. This is not to say that an alternative should not be proposed or discussed, just that it is a much more long-term issue that would require profound systemic changes.

Within capitalism, therefore, the only way of reconciling these two objectives is through a drastic reduction in the rate of resource use, or throughput. That is where technological development comes in. Resource-efficient technologies can reduce the amount of non-renewable materials used to produce outputs. The question then is whether new technologies will be able to lower throughput at a faster rate than the growth of output. There are many reasons to doubt this, and to some extent a revision of our current consumption standards seems inevitable. However, we should not underestimate the power of human ingenuity. Those that have done so in the past have often been embarrassed, such as Malthus with his catastrophic demographic predictions.

In this regard, there are reasons to be optimistic about the impacts of the so-called Industry 4.0 on the rate of resource use. Industry 4.0 refers to the industrial application of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, cyber-physical systems, and additive manufacturing. This enables smart, connected and adaptable production. This may greatly impact sustainability. Firstly, the digitization of supply chains optimizes the matching of supply and demand in real-time, avoiding material losses associated with overproduction, and optimizing the distribution of raw materials. Additive manufacturing can also be used to realize new, complex lightweight structures that can be applied to save materials. Secondly, more efficient energy consumption can be expected with the improvement in capacity utilization and in throughput times in factories. Energy efficiency can also be obtained with the use of the Smart Grid, reducing losses during grid transmissions. Thirdly, with the increasing traceability and monitoring of product usage, Industry 4.0 may support the realization of closed-loop life cycles, such as through the reuse of individual product components, and the facilitation of partnerships between companies and end-of-life stakeholders (e.g. recycling companies), making it easier to integrate the remanufacturing of individual parts into the life cycle. Every product, from electronics to plastic bottles, may be traced from its production to the end of its life cycle, and the state of its components monitored. Of course, this is not enough, but it is a great enabling step towards more resource-efficient production.

Conversely, there are also reasons to doubt the environmental sustainability of Industry 4.0. For example, although 4.0 technologies might lead to higher energy-efficiency, primary energy consumption may rise with the increasing use of data-centres, telecommunication networks, cloud storages, computer equipment, and the constant monitoring and adaptation of production processes. Additive manufacturing processes are currently highly energy-intensive, especially in the production of the starting materials used in these processes. In terms of quantity of materials used, the trend is also not clear. The increasing integration of sensors, actuators and transmission devices in new smart products and equipment will lead to an enormous demand for new and critical raw materials, such as “technology metals” that in general are non-recyclable.

As such, there is no consensus on whether new digital technologies can help create a more sustainable production.  There is uncertainty not only about their direct impacts, but also their indirect ones – the transformations they may induce in firm and consumer behaviour. The key point here is, however, that there is still time to influence the direction in which digital technologies are developing. Instead of asking how 4.0 technologies can impact sustainability, perhaps a more interesting question to ask would be how can sustainability principles orient the development of 4.0 technologies?

In addition to their effects on sustainability, there are reasons to believe that new digital technologies might represent windows of opportunity for some developing countries. Historical records show that technological paradigm changes have often allowed for new entrants to challenge the leadership of established firms and countries. At the firm level, think of Kodak, and its loss of leadership with the introduction of digital cameras. At the country level, think of the emergence of Japan and South Korea as leaders in the highly dynamic electronics industry in the 1980s. Or earlier, think of the US and Germany catching-up to the British leadership at the end of the 19th century by entering new industries such as chemicals and electric equipment, or by adopting new technologies in old industries such as steel production. This is the process of “creative destruction” that Schumpeter described as the central feature of capitalism. 

Taking advantage of the opportunities of Industry 4.0, however, requires a somewhat developed level of technological and production capabilities. Therefore, countries with a more established industrial base, such as some middle-income countries, seem better positioned to address the challenges of digitalization. Contrastingly, for most of the developing world the discussion refers more to the effective absorption and adaptation of these technologies to specific existing productive activities, than to completely overhauling their economies.

An intersection between these two issues of environmental sustainability and economic catch-up lies in the fact that it might be easier for new firms and industries in developing countries to adopt new greener production paradigms, than for established firms in developed countries to convert their old plants. After years of activity and incremental innovation, established firms are already competitive in the old resource-inefficient production paradigms, and therefore could be more resistant to technological and organizational changes. In that sense, jumpstarting processes of digital green industrialization in developing countries can represent an opportunity for tackling both global inequality and environmental sustainability at the same time.

It must be observed, however, that this adoption of greener production paradigms will not derive automatically from the workings of free forces in the market. Development and adoption of new technologies, especially frontier ones, involves committing large capital investments and facing radical uncertainty – situations where it is not even possible to make probabilistic calculations about the future. Consequently, if these processes are left purely to the market, they will most likely never happen. Furthermore, the path of less resistance to non-renewable and resource inefficient technology will mostly be taken. Thus, the crucial role of state in both driving productive development processes and in making sure that they are environmentally sustainable must be discussed. Historically, the state has been fundamental not only in promoting industrial and technological development through many policy instruments such as tariffs, subsidies, public procurement, and technological licensing, but also in giving direction to these developments. The state mission of getting the man on the moon led to the development and adoption of many space-related technologies. The state missions of defeating their opponents in combat led to the development and adoption of many warfare technologies. Why not expect the same with worldwide state missions of sustainable production?

It also doesn’t seem fair to make developing countries bear the full burden of cultivating green industries, given that developed countries did not have the same preoccupations when they were industrializing, and today they remain responsible for most of the world’s resource consumption and environmental issues. Imposing environmental restrictions for developing countries on top of all the restrictions they already have seems just another way of ‘kicking away the ladder’, that is, stopping developing countries from taking the path that developed countries took in their own development processes. This is even more problematic given that many restrictions that developing countries have today are due to their colonial past. A more welcome approach, then, would be a positive one, with financial and non-financial stimuli for developing countries to adopt greener technologies. This would not be aid, but international subsidies and technology transfers, which are closer to the policies that the developed countries of today used in the past. In some way, incentives for green industrialization could be a mutually beneficial opportunity for paying the colonial debt.

I know this is quite a utopian approach. I believe it is unlikely that developed countries will voluntarily facilitate developing countries’ industrialization processes – green or not. In the end, capitalism is a competitive system, and change is only achieved by developing countries through their own policies and efforts, in most cases against various and strong contrary pressures.  Most likely, the environmental issue will be addressed – of course not openly, and often not even consciously – by maintaining a large part of the global population in poverty, and with a much less drastic change in the rate of resource use. 

This might work for a while, and the emerging digital technologies may play a part in buying us some time. But overall, if we do believe in the possibility of a more equal global landscape, at some point we will have to face the daunting question of the compatibility of an ever-growing, ever-accumulating system, with the environmental limits of our planet.

The Guyana-Norway REDD+ Agreement: Has Selling the Rainforest Worked?


Published by Ella Duffy, and artwork by Ryan Ward.

In 2009, an innovative project became the posterchild for the REDD+ programme (the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, set up in 2008). Guyana, a country on the Caribbean coast of South America with an estimated 75-85% forest coverage[1], would be funded by Norway to conserve their vast expanses of rainforest. USD$250 million was promised to Guyana, to be paid on a results-led basis and invested in Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) projects. There were seven original projects in the first years of the project, ranging from improving forest and biodiversity mapping to Amerindian land titling and micro-enterprise grants for rural communities. Ten years on and the agreement, which was only supposed to last five years, has shown little real progress and has had a limited effect on the indigenous communities who were supposed to benefit from the finances.

The REDD schemes are, in theory, a simple and effective way to curb deforestation, keeping rainforests as carbon sinks and reducing the volume of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Governments and their forest-dwelling peoples are financially rewarded for not cutting down trees, and this money can be fed back into low-carbon development projects; this ‘peopled’ aspect of REDD schemes is denoted by the ‘+’ in ‘REDD+’. However, what this overview hides is that REDD programmes can alDay 173 - 2.2.15low richer countries to continue on a ‘business as usual’ trajectory domestically, whilst offsetting the emissions through prevented deforestation in the Global South. Another whole article could be written about the neocolonial undertones of this, but even ignoring the narrative behind it, there is surely an obvious problem if REDD is exploited in this way.

Norway’s interest in Guyana h therefore been suspected to be an attempt for Norway, the biggest REDD donor worldwide, to maintain its ‘green’ international image whilst remaining a major oil producer. The choice of Guyana as a funding partner is in itself odd. Norway’s two other major funding partners are Brazil and Indonesia, countries with historically incredibly high rates of deforestation where financial incentives could make real difference in willingness to participate in conservation. Guyana, on the other hand, seemed a strange choice, being roughly the size of the UK but home to only 784,000 people, and with an already extremely low annual deforestation rate compared to global figures (0.02% in 2009-2010 compared to the global average of 0.52% in 2005-2009). Norway had no previous bilateral ties with the country, and no previous political or commercial interests. Guyana is classified as lower-middle-income by the World Bank but, at the time of the REDD+ deal, was ranked in the Corruption Perception Index (Transparency International) as 133rd out of 180 countries, meaning it had a similar lack of government transparency and freedom of the press to Russia and Iran. Bade (2013) puts this strange choice down to ‘aid in a rush’. Norway was pushed for time before the Fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, so organised the deal without any kind of risk assessment until ten months after the agreement was signed.

This lack of clarity is characteristic of the project as a whole. The agreement between Guyana and Norway was first heralded as a potential model for REDD+ to be implemented globally and Bharrat Jagdeo, Guyana’s president at the time, was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize because of his environmental efforts. Despite the initial excitement over REDD+ in Guyana, however, the project was plagued by misunderstandings and slow progress. Finances have been slow to trickle through from the World Bank fund into which Norway pays, and the political momentum seems not to have been maintained through the 2015 change in presidency. A hydroelectric dam was supposed to be the first large development project funded through the scheme, but plans collapsed due to parliamentary opposition and private sector withdrawal. There is a silver lining: there has been significant progress in one of the seven original projects, and forest monitoring and biodiversity mapping has improved with Norway’s input.

A major player in the program is the indigenous population of Guyana. Roughly 10% of Guyana’s population is indigenous; Guyanese Amerindians are the majority population in all the hinterland regions. It is these hinterland regions with which REDD+ concerns itself, as much of the Guyanese hinterlands are virgin rainforest. Early conversations in the initial agreements were that Amerindian people would be fully communicated with and consulted at all stages of the REDD+ program. In addition, the program’s funds were mainly to be used on projects that benefited local communities, including a long-needed Amerindian land titling program.

An impact assessment from Laing (2018) reveals that nothing has really come of the REDD+ program for forest-dwelling Amerindian people. While there was talk early on in the project about having robust communication between Amerindians and the government, this seems to have been superficial and Amerindian communities were concerned about the lack of information given to them. There has been no significant cost to Amerindian communities through REDD+, but also no significant benefits; all that has materialized are a few grants of USD$25,000 and some solar panels. There were hopes of economic benefits to remote communities from REDD+, but slow implementation coupled with a long history of Amerindian mistrust towards the government has simply resulted in more scepticism about their commitment to Amerindian communities. Laing (2018) says that “it is neither a grand success or a complete failure” but that at least the initial excitement over REDD+ opened up potential political channels for more effective communication between Amerindian village councils and national government in the future.

It would seem, then, that Norway’s funding of Guyana, a country that already had very low levels of deforestation, may have been an ineffective choice in the first place, and that the REDD+ program has amounted to very little human development in the decade that it has been running. While the forest and biodiversity monitoring scheme has been successful, the on-the-ground development projects have not materialised and there has been a noticeable reduction in the commitment to proper communication with Amerindian communities. Aside from these issues with the implementation of the program, there are also conceptual issues with REDD itself. It is not in any way an effective program if the donor country uses it to ‘offset’ their own domestic emissions whilst staying on a ‘business as usual’ trajectory, as this amounts to no net gain in preserving forests at all.

Where does this leave Guyana? The rate of deforestation has risen in the last decade (but not extensively) and ecotourism has boomed. The government continues to pride themselves on backing environmentally focused policy. However, they will have increasingly more environmental issues to deal with in the coming years; not only will the low-lying country be affected by sea level rise with anthropogenic climate change, but also recently discovered offshore oil wells may provide opportunities for extractive industries to threaten Guyana’s ‘green’ reputation. As for REDD, schemes continue to be implemented globally, some with a great deal more success than this early version of the program in Guyana, but the question remains over whether they can provide more than just a carbon offsetting solution for richer nations.

[1] FAO, 2010; Guyana Forestry Commission & Indufor, 2012, 2013; Guyana Forestry Commission & Poyry Forest Industry, 2010.

Climate Change and Individual Responsibility: A Dangerous Narrative


Published: Lottie Elton and artwork by Ryan Ward.

The demand that individuals everywhere ‘do their bit’ to help mitigate the climate crisis is, in many ways, a positive and inspiring one. As Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg declares, “no one is too small to make a difference.” However, the oft-asserted demand that everyone ‘do their bit’ can have insidious implications, suggesting that the predominant agent of change is the individual. By inference, this absolves the governments and corporations who are most responsible for climaGreta-Thunberg-e1576169602969te change and most capable of lessening its impact. It also obscures the variable responsibility that different countries have for the climate catastrophe. Due to their position of historical subjugation, countries in the ‘Global South’ are left vulnerable against a change they themselves did not significantly contribute to. Conversely, the ‘Global North’ will be for a time insulated against the crisis that it has precipitated, as its citizens continue to consume on a level unimaginable elsewhere. The concept of climate justice demands that governments and corporations accept culpability, and so challenges the narrative that places blame on all individuals equally. To suggest that climate justice is focused mainly on ‘individuals everywhere’ is to depoliticise and decontextualize it, and to make it amenable to status quo powers.

The representation of climate justice as demanding a universal reduction in individual emissions is simultaneously too broad and too narrow. Suggesting that ‘individuals everywhere’ decrease their carbon footprint assumes a unified category of individuals, homogenous in their culpability for the climate crisis. Climate justice actively opposes such a perception, challenging the notion that an all-encompassing ‘humankind’ has “generated a single human footprint.”[1] In their book The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz criticise this dominant climate-crisis narrative for “presenting an abstract humanity uniformly involved – implying uniformity of blame.” [2] The focus on the ‘individual’ is also too narrow, as climate justice transcends the individual, and places the onus of redistributive fairness on international actors. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein articulates such a perspective: “this is a far more expansive vision than the familiar eco-critique that stresses smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or “footprint.” That is not an option today; we must use our institutions to act.” [3]  Narratives that emphasise individual efforts can contribute to the depoliticization of global warming when they are presented as the only option for fighting climate change.

In suggesting that everyone, everywhere, reduce their carbon footprint, one would have to presume a fairly uniform current level of consumption and emission. However, the variability in per capita consumption around the world is vast, an assertion tellingly borne out by statistics. The average American consumes around 32 times as many resources as the average Kenyan and produces approximately 54.6 times as many metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. [4] Such evidence undermines any descriptions that detail human emissions solely in the aggregate and that imply everyone should reduce their carbon footprint.  Bonneuil and Fressoz argue that the term ‘Anthropocene’ might be better replaced by ‘Oligathropocene.’

The variability in individual responsibility is paralleled by variability in international responsibility. Climate change must be historicised. By 1825, the UK was responsible for 80% of the world’s emissions, with the first evidence of a global increase in temperature emerging around the 1830s. [5] The industrial revolution also provided the impetus for the extension of European imperialism in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Between 1850 and 1900, European per capita income increased by 222%, whilst the per capita income in Africa and Asia rose by just 8% and 1% respectively.[6] Famine all but disappeared from Western Europe during this time, but Asia and Africa experienced food shortages of unprecedented scope.[7] By 1914, colonial powers controlled 85% of the world’s surface, and had firmly established a structurally unequal international hierarchy in which the dominance of the imperialist powers was contingent upon the disempowerment of the Global South.[8] The central premise of climate justice hinges upon this iniquitous history and its manifestations in the present day. Global North countries are largely responsible for the climate crisis, yet their poorer counterparts will feel its impact most harshly. Climate justice does not require all individuals everywhere to reduce emissions; it instead obliges powerful western nations to bear the financial burden of protecting their former colonies.

The central focus of climate justice – the call for climate reparations – has undeniable ethical purchase.  However, the climate agreements negotiated thus far explicitly preclude any such compensation. In 2009, for example, the non-binding Copenhagen agreement established a target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above 19th century levels. [9] Lumumba Di-Aping, the head of the G77 group of 130 nations, castigated the agreement for its lack of legal gravitas and its amenability with the status quo; he decried it as “a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries.” [10] In this vein, the Guardian newspaper described the conference as sounding the ‘death rattle of climate justice.’ [11] Moreover, despite the significance of the 2015 Paris accords, the agreement implicitly repudiates the prospect of potential reparations. It still proved too radical for President Trump, who withdrew the US from the agreement on the grounds that it “handicapped the United States economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense.” [12] According to Klein, climate justice demands a ‘Marshall plan for the world’ where poorer countries could demand financial and technological assistance from their richer counterparts.” [13] The international community seems to emphatically reject this position, and focuses instead on more palatable initiatives such as individual reduction of emissions.

Climate justice requires both an alteration in the actions of western individuals, and a change in how the international system operates. These individual and systemic transformations have failed to eventuate because they run counter to the central tenets of free-market capitalism. Active remedial measures would require the redistribution of wealth, a concept antithetical to neoliberal principles. Market elites make climate action political heresy by espousing the capitalist axiom ‘grow or die.’ The vision sold by globalisation – one in which capitalism enables consumerist, western-style patterns of life to be enjoyed by all – is a fiction. The planet cannot support the profligate consumerism of the West. Mahatma Gandhi observed this, saying – “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West … it would strip of the world bare like locusts.” [14] But admitting that western patterns of life cannot be enjoyed by all undermines the very legitimacy of the international order by revealing that it is based on inequity. After such a recognition, Global North countries would necessarily be forced to redistribute wealth to their poorer counterparts. However, this recognition does not seem likely. Richer countries have the luxury to deny the urgency of climate change, possessing, for now, the resources necessary to combat it. The stakes are lower for the Global North, augmenting even further the disparity of power in climate negotiations.

Ultimately, climate change will affect everyone. However, describing global warming as a ‘great equaliser’ is misguided; it implies a uniform threat, experienced by all people on the same terms. This is not the case, and different nations have varying capacities of adaptability with regard to coping with the threats posed by climate change, as well as differing levels of culpability. The demand that individuals recycle, eat less meat, walk to work, and vacation at home focuses solely on the individual, and so obscures this disparity and the urgency of systemic change. To be sure, recycling more, adopting a plant-based diet, and flying less are important and helpful initiatives. However, they cannot be the only response to climate change, or else they serve as redirections of blame, symptomatic of the reluctance of powerful nations to admit responsibility.

[1] Bonneuil, C. and Fressoz, J. (2016). The shock of the Anthropocene. Verso, p.65.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything. Penguin, p.385.

[4] Bonneuil and Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene, p.70

[5] Abram, N., McGregor, H., Tierney, J., Evans, M., McKay, N. and Kaufman, D. (2017). Corrigendum: Early onset of industrial-era warming across the oceans and continents. Nature, 545(7653), pp.252-252.

[6] Bonneuil and Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene, p.242

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bonneuil and Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene, p.240

[9] News.bbc.co.uk. (2017). BBC News – Copenhagen deal: Key points. [online] Available at: https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8422307.stm [Accessed 24 Nov. 2017].

[10] Mathiesen, K. (2017). Defining moments in climate change: hope and crisis in Copenhagen. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/apr/07/copenhagen-climate-change-paris-talks [Accessed 25 Nov. 2017].

[11] Ibid

[12] whitehouse.gov. (2017). Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord. [online] Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/06/01/statement-president-trump-paris-climate-accord [Accessed 24 Nov. 2017].

[13] Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything. Penguin, p.4

[14] Ghosh. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. p.186

Wales and Climate Change: How Fossil Fuels and Renewables Have Governed Economic Development


Published: Luke Thomas and artwork by Ryan Ward

In the 1960s, as theories surrounding climate change began to emerge, its consequences were already evident across the Welsh Valleys.  At 09:13 on the 21st of October 1966 in Aberfan, 150,000 tonnes of coal waste buried a school.  144 people were killed; 116 of which were children.  The events of that morning wiped out a generation of people from Aberfan.  It was the last day of term and the school was closing early at noon – had the landslide occurred only a few hours later, it would have been empty.  An estimated 6000 people have been killed in Wales as a result of coal mining; for them, the climate crisis began long before now, it began in the coal mines.

Coal has been at the very heart of the Welsh economy for centuries.  It brought employment, opportunities and infrastructure.  By the early 20th century, one in four workers in Wales were coal miners.  The country was renowned worldwide for its slate and was home to one of the world’s largest coalfields. The desire for coal fuelled development across Wales; it became home to the world’s highest railway viaduct, the world’s tallest canal aqueduct as well as the first ever steam train. Railways were built to connect communities to the mines, which in turn allowed communities with one each other.  Wales was even home to the first operational public railway in the UK, which ran from the Gwendraeth valley into my hometown of Llanelli. But, climate change tortured the Welsh economy.  A desire for cleaner energy meant that fuel sources switched from coal to gas and biomass; and as the coal mines closed, so did the quarries, ports, and most importantly, the railways.  When the coal mines and railways closed, communities became economically and socially isolated.  The transport links were only built to exploit Welsh natural resources and not to connect the country; we’re yet to see a railway or a highway connecting the North and South.

Before the mining crisis, Wales’ economy kept up with the rest of the UKs, but the closure of the mines resulted in the Welsh GVA (Gross Value Added) falling to just 77% of the UK average by 1999. Some state that the decline of the Welsh economy is a clear example of Westminster’s mismanagement, not only of the 1980s mining crisis, but also of Wales.  Today, Wales is home to the highest level of child poverty in the UK and is the only place to see child poverty levels rising.  In my home ward, 41.3% of children live in poverty.  Wales continues to suffer socio-economic issues three decades after the mining crisis and there is a clear need to reassess the policies surrounding the economic progression of the country.  In contrast, London is the richest region in northern Europe, but Wales is the poorest.  Adam Price, the leader of the nationalist party in Wales, stated that ‘the solutions to our problems will never come from another country’s capital 150 miles to the East.’ The devolution settlement, however, has meant that Wales now has a significantly greater say in its own affairs.  The Senedd (Welsh Parliament), is responsible for many decisions including the Welsh NHS, education and the environment.  The environment is one of the factors high on the national agenda and in October 2011, Wales was the first country in the UK to introduce a charge for plastic bags.  More importantly, in April of this year, the Senedd was the first national Parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency.

A month after declaring the climate emergency, the Welsh Government controversially axed a scheme to build a £1.6bn M4 relief road.  The relief road was to be built due to congestion around a two-lane tunnel which results in a bottleneck on the motorway.  This was deemed a huge win for environmentalists, since the relief road would have ‘ploughed through the unique, wildlife-rich Gwent Levels, pumped more climate-wrecking emissions into our atmosphere, and ultimately caused even more congestion and air pollution’. Nonetheless,  others claim that this decision could be detrimental to the much-needed investment along the south coast, in particular the Valleys which saw the blunt of the economic hardship after the mining crisis.  Nonetheless, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, had the final say in the decision and stressed his concern about the surrounding wildlife and environment and that the project ‘would have an unacceptable impact on our other priorities such as public transport’. After the climate emergency was announced in Wales, the Welsh Government and Cardiff City Council both announced that they were to heavily invest in public transport.  £58m is to be invested in Cardiff Central railway station and £119m has been secured from the EU to develop a South Wales Metro. The city council has also announced a £1bn scheme to transform public transport across the city to reduce car journeys.  This scheme is to integrate with the South Wales Metro and is to include green and electric buses. A new bus station is set to open in Cardiff by 2023 and the scheme is expected to be complete by 2030.

Despite Wales suffering economic hardship from its over-reliance on mining of fossil fuels, climate change is no longer hindering development in Wales, but is in fact actively encouraging it. Wales currently outdoes the whole of the UK in terms of its renewable energy consumption, where it currently meets 48% of its energy demands by renewable sources compared to just 11% across the whole of the UK. It is also on target to reach 70% by 2030 and an ‘ambitious’ target from the Institute of Welsh Affairs predicts that 20,150 jobs could be created if Wales meets 100% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2035. Climate change and investment in renewable energy could give the Welsh economy its much-needed boost.  Currently, Wales is the fifth largest electricity exporter in the world, just behind Canada, Germany, Paraguay and France, whereas the British state is not even in the top ten. Wales produces enough extra electricity to almost satisfy the energy consumption of the whole of Scotland, but despite this, Wales pays more for its electricity than the rest of the UK, where the Welsh average is 15.13 p/kWh compared to the UK average of 14.40 p/kWh.  Regulation of energy prices is not a devolved issue and as such the Welsh Government has no control over the effect of price hikes and austerity measures on the poorest region of the UK; meaning that several families in Wales have to choose between heating and eating.

Climate change is not only developing the physical landscape, but also the political landscape of Wales. In 2014, the UK Government announced a £1.3bn Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which could have brought over 2000 jobs and powered 155,000 homes.  Labour, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and even the Welsh Conservatives all supported the project, but in June 2018 the UK Conservative government scrapped it.  On the very same day they voted for the £14bn expansion of Heathrow airport. As Wales was refused investment in green energy production, Westminster greenlit the expansion of the UKs biggest single source of greenhouse gases. This was not only a kick in the teeth to environmentalists, but also to those in Wales, as the promise of jobs and investment was broken. Further to this, the UK Conservative government also broke other environmental development promises including electrification of the South Wales railway lines past Cardiff, electrification of the North Wales railway lines and they failed to reach a deal for a nuclear power plant which would have brought 9000 jobs to Anglesey.  Several political parties are calling for more devolved powers to allow for a greater degree of environmental control and energy production to give the green light to those projects rejected by Westminster. Some argue that this, and the economic hardship that Wales continues to endure proves that Westminster has not been making the correct decisions for them.

Whilst the worst of climate change is yet to come, Wales has already seen the human and environmental cost of fossil fuels over several centuries. Despite providing coal to the rest of the UK and the world for centuries, ironically a third of Welsh people now live in fuel poverty. But what goes around comes around, and as a result of climate change, there is a push for investment in public transport and renewable energy, driving economic development across Wales. Climate change may have resulted in the decline of the Welsh economy – but it could prove responsible for its revival too.

Leapfrogging: Mind the Gap Between the Tech and the People


Published: Melina Mitsotaki and artwork by Ryan Ward.

It is easy for people with a tech background in the developed world to forget about the alternative pathways of technology. This was certainly true for me, with an undergraduate degree in engineering and all my peers pursuing careers in the largest tech hubs in the US and Europe. Things changed when I decided to take on an internship with the UN Environment in Jamaica this past year. That was when I first encountered the notion of leapfrogging development, and realized that tech can, in fact, escape its hubs and diffuse into all corners of the world.


In Jamaica I was able to learn about the internal structure of a country while also experiencing it externally through everyday interactions and observations. On one hand, through the UN I experienced the attitudes of the Caribbean Community to sustainable development through the governmental activity of its various member states. In other words, I read quite a few policy documents: proposals, reports, action plans. These alone provide good insight on countries’ development models and their place in wider global power dynamics. On the other hand, in my daily life outside the UN I was getting a glimpse of what it is actually like to live in a developing country that is following the said models and strategies. This linking of theory to everyday observations allowed me a more critical look at the pragmatism of the strategies employed and the feasibility of the projects proposed. 


My introduction to leapfrogging came through the official channels of the UN which is perhaps an indication of its top-down nature as a development strategy. Leapfrogging is an effort by highly established international organizations to improve living standards of millions of people on the ground and has become something of a buzzword in the world of international development. For anyone lacking the background or a clear idea of what it refers to, here is a handy definition by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):

the bypassing of intermediate stages of technology through which countries have historically passed during the development process (2018).

There are various examples of developing countries adopting technologies that have ripened or been mainstreamed in developed countries without having to go through the entire development process themselves. Whether that be mobile telecommunication networks in Western Africa or bank-account-free money transactions through mobile phones in South Asia, the leapfrogging approach has been Picture 1gaining ground and popularity (UNCTAD, 2018)(Chhabra and Das, 2019). And that should be expected. The promise that leapfrogging gives to developing countries for accelerated development has an undeniable appeal, it comes as something like a deus ex machina. Except, in this case, the promise does not materialize magically. Leapfrogging requires extensive calculation and planning. Most importantly, it necessitates in-depth comprehension of the existing sociopolitical conditions of the country at hand. This necessity is precisely what I intend to call attention to.


In Jamaica, I found development to be inextricably linked to political strategy which was a driving force for its implementation. Development was also at the forefront in in-person discussions on environmental and energy aspects of development between stakeholders and government representatives, for Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole. Some overarching questions were: What is Jamaica’s strategy post-Paris Agreement to achieving its Nationally Determined Contribution as it relates to its carbon emissions? How can we effectively green the energy sector as outlined in Jamaica’s national strategic plan for sustainable development, Vision 2030? What technologies can be successfully adopted and introduced in the Caribbean to facilitate sustainable development? One such facilitating technology that occasionally found its way into forum discussions and stood out to me as a case study subject was electric mobility, more specifically Electric Vehicles (EVs). 


In today’s world, EVs are widely deemed as the paradigm of clean transportation. In the face of a planet that is struggling to keep its CO2 emissions under control, and a road transportation system that is responsible for at least one-tenth of global emissions (C2ES, 2017), EVs are now seen as the promise to revolutionizing road transportation. Within the automotive industry, they have already made a strong market entry. Most large car manufacturers are producing many of their new models with hybrid or purely electric engines. Purely electric cars require no gas at all, bringing their direct emissions down to zero, and operate on rechargeable batteries. They can be charged at home or at public stations that often supply power from renewable sources, such as solar. This transition in the automotive industry has received support from national and international policymakers alike, and already some states are employing financial mechanisms to incentivize the purchase and use of EVs (CSE, 2019).


At one of such events, UNDP’s UNCut Discussions on Climate Change, the co-founder of Barbados-based company MegaPower, Joanna Edghill, was discussing and promoting the commercial success of EVs in Barbados. According to MegaPower, Barbados has made significant progress in e-mobility with 200+ EVs on the road and 50+ publicly accessible charging points (Megapower Barbados, 2019). Edghill, being herself a serious advocate for the suitability of EVs for Caribbean countries, was very encouraging toward Jamaican stakeholders entertaining the idea. Without a doubt, the Caribbean climate has an abundance of sunlight and could support solar-powered charging stations. To add to that, cheap solar-powered charging makes EVs all the more appealing when compared to the forbidding cost of imported gasoline in many Caribbean islands. However, during Edghill’s short presentation I perceived some inertia and maybe a slight hint of skepticism among the Jamaican audience. This triggered my curiosity.


I later attempted to look closer at this idea of leapfrogging EVs into Jamaica to understand why they have not taken off in Jamaica as they have in Barbados. Not only have they not taken off, but there exists no EV infrastructure in Jamaica whatsoever to support the use of EVs, e.g. charging stations. One obvious factor is that Barbados is significantly wealthier, with a GDP per capita over twice that of Jamaica (Country comparison Barbados vs Jamaica 2019, 2019). This could serve as an explanation for the weak marketability of EVs in Jamaica, both on the consumer end, but also on the end of public or private stakeholders that would have to subsidize the necessary infrastructure. While the economic line of reasoning alone is extremely important and gave me a satisfactory answer to my question, I could also not look away from another, complementary line of reasoning. The cultural line or reasoning became apparent to me when I started thinking about one very specific aspect of car ownership: servicing. 


As had become clear to me through my everyday observations, car servicing very unsurprisingly did not escape Jamaica’s status as a developing country. I had seen the high number of unofficial car service stations and decided to ask some local friends about how Jamaicans typically choose to service their cars, and if they prefer mechanics not affiliated to official retailers. I discovered that unofficial servicing is in fact very common. It is cheap and effective, largely because many of these mechanics never receive official training. They know car parts, engine components and how to troubleshoot most common problems – an adequate skillset to earn them their living. In this given dynamic, I wanted to introduce a thought experiment: assuming EVs went mainstream in Jamaica, what would the implications be for its current car service market?


Things would certainly not look very hopeful for owners and mechanics of these informal service stations. EVs and traditional gasoline vehicles are like apples and pears when it comes to servicing. Aside from the common checks, like tire pressure and braking systems, servicing an EV is very different (Volkswagen UK, no date). In simple terms, an electric engine conveniently comprises fewer components than a traditional gas engine, which is good in principle because there are fewer things to break. At the same time, though, the bulk of its operation depends on electronics and software rather than on mechanical connections between physical parts. Thus, servicing an EV roughly amounts to checking its electronics, and electronics are no layman hobby. Current mechanics in Jamaica could certainly not check for and troubleshoot software problems in an electric car. There is no knowledge and skills for that there yet. Thus my thought experiment yields two main conclusions: 


1)    The mechanics share in the local economy would suffer from an abrupt transition to electric mobility and that would likely result in unemployment for those active in that market.

2)    EV owners would have to visit their official retailers to have their cars serviced -and that is significantly more expensive. 


Naturally that brings up the question: does the much lower cost of recharging an EV make up for the expensive servicing? It is an interesting cost-benefit analysis for end-users, and my personal take is that it also depends on how strong the incentives are for them to abandon that which they are used to.


The implications of introducing any new technology to a country exogenously are not just contained within the economy. Developers have to be sensitive about how this new technology will interact with the country’s social framework as a whole. The right systems, infrastructure, and institutions need to be in place so that the conditions are ripe for any new entry in the market, and in many cases these factors also involve cultural receptiveness. What is suitable for one developing country might well not be for another.


Of course, the wider social implications of leapfrogging a certain technology can never be completely exhausted or exactly predicted. In the case of Jamaica, cultural considerations are yet to be played out in the continuation of the EV relay that Barbados has started. Time will tell as to whether they will indeed be a practical hindrance to its implementation. Regardless, it is crucial for all parties affecting and affected by international development work to have a critical approach. It is true that the benefits of introducing novel technology to developing countries can significantly boost economic growth and people’s living standards, or even improve the environment, but that is only if it is done with great thought and a willingness to understand the existing dynamics within. Leapfrogging is like buying a new outfit; it might look exciting before you try it on, but it is only worth it when it fits. 

Works Cited

C2ES (2017) Global Emissions, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Available at: https://www.c2es.org/content/international-emissions/ (Accessed: 29 October 2019).

Chhabra, E. and Das, B. (2019) ‘Mobile Money Spreads to Asia’, IMF Blog, 30 September. Available at: https://blogs.imf.org/2019/09/30/mobile-money-spreads-to-asia/ (Accessed: 17 October 2019).

Country comparison Barbados vs Jamaica 2019 (2019) Country Economy. Available at: https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/barbados/jamaica (Accessed: 20 October 2019).

CSE (2019) CVRP Eligible Vehicles, Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. Available at: https://cleanvehiclerebate.org/eng/eligible-vehicles (Accessed: 29 October 2019).

Megapower Barbados (2019) megapower365. Available at: https://www.megapower365.com (Accessed: 21 October 2019).

UNCTAD (2018) ‘Leapfrogging: Look before you leap’. (Policy Brief), 71. Available at: https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/presspb2018d8_en.pdf (Accessed: 17 October 2019).

Volkswagen UK (no date) Electric Car Servicing, Maintenance & Repairing, Volkswagen. Available at: /owners/servicing/electric (Accessed: 16 October 2019).


Pursuing Both Climate Mitigation And Energy Access


Published: Olivia Chen and artwork by Ryan Ward.

This year, there remain in the world, by the World Bank’s most recent estimate, 840 million people without access to electricity, and 3 billion people without access to clean cooking. The population without access to electricity is mostly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, whereas the population without clean cooking spans the African, Asian, and Latin American continents. In every part of the world, urban residents tend to receive modern energy solutions well before rural residents.


Lacking access to modern energy is a significant impediment to countries’ economic development. As such, the United Nations has included universal access to energy as one of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. It is numbered goal 7.1: “by 2030 ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services.”  Recently, a Global Commission to End Energy Poverty has been convened to address this very challenge.


Access to electricity, even for the smallest appliances, can significantly alter quality of life. Additional light bulbs can improve security and extend the productive hours of the day beyond sunset. In many cases, having electricity gives children more time to do their homework at night, benefiting their education. Chargers keep mobile phones – which are more ubiquitous than electricity supply in many countries – functioning as sources of information and tools for communication. At a higher level of electricity supply, fans can combat heat and fridges can extend the shelf time of perishables. Surveys conducted by the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association have found that most households report improvements to their quality of life, health, and income thanks to electricity access. 


Beyond the household, electricity can facilitate essential community services in schools, community centres, and hospitals. In particular, lights in hospital operation wards and refrigeration for vaccines are essential for healthcare improvements. At the industrial level, productivity gains from electrifying processes can jump-start economic growth. 


Access to clean cooking, though sometimes less visible an issue on the international political agenda, is similarly fundamental for economic growth. Those without typically rely on burning biomass for heat and light. In households where traditional cookstoves are used, smoke is not typically redirected outside of the house. The World Health Organisation estimates the indoor air pollution to cause 3.8 million premature deaths per year. These health consequences fall disproportionately on women, who are often in charge of cooking, and can exacerbate gender inequality.


Clean cooking is also an issue of productivity. As traditional cookstoves have low efficiency, cooking can take long periods of time. It also takes time, up to 5 hours a day, to gather the necessary fuel. Various solutions can contribute to health, equality, and economic growth. Modern cookstoves that burn biomass can be significantly more efficient and cleaner, even if they use the same traditional fuel. Other improved options are cookstoves that run on liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, or electricity.



Also included in the same United Nations 2030 development agenda, and increasingly at the forefront of political agendas around the world, is the challenge of climate mitigation. Sustainable Development Goal 13 mandates “[taking] urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Climate change is considered by many to be the key challenge of our generation, bound to impact all of humanity, rich and poor.


At face value, the objectives of climate mitigation and energy access seem incompatible. How do we extend electricity and clean cooking fuels or technologies to further populations without increasing the global greenhouse gas footprint? Would commitment to climate mitigation strongly restrict energy access expansions and their resulting development gains? 



Long-term modelling has shown one way that we can balance both of these urgent and important objectives. The International Energy Agency has mapped out the Sustainable Development Scenario, which is a future in which both Sustainable Development Goals in discussion (as well as air pollution improvements) are achieved globally by 2030. In this pathway, energy access is achieved in a way that is not only net neutral for climate mitigation, but even helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Leaders of governments and the energy sector can adhere to elements of this Utopian scenario:


First of all, renewable energy is incorporated heavily into the portfolio of energy access solutions. Solar photo-voltaic panels and hydro-power for electricity generation, as well as biomass in more efficient cookstoves [IS1] are considered cost-effective low-carbon solutions. For a point of reference, in the Sustainable Development Scenario, over three-quarters of new electricity connections are provided by renewable sources.


Renewable energy sources can pose limitations on the end-user if not installed thoughtfully. For example, to ensure that solar energy can provide adequate levels of energy services, solar panels can be combined with battery packs to ensure lighting at night, etc. Companies selling solar home systems typically include batteries for this purpose and allow houses to access electricity off-grid. These solutions are particularly cost-effective in places with lower population density, where it might not be justifiable to expand expensive grid infrastructure. 


Second, energy access solutions can maximise the added-value of any unavoidable greenhouse gases by selling efficient end use appliances. Efficient appliances provide necessary energy services – lighting, heating, cooling, washing, etc. – with a lower electricity supply. This not only limits the associated greenhouse gas emissions of power usage, but also reduces electricity bills, and makes battery capacity last longer hours for off-grid households.


Third, it turns out that the goal of clean cooking is quite compatible with climate mitigation. When using traditional cookstoves, the incomplete combustion of biomass fuel can lead to significant methane emissions. This methane can be reduced significantly by replacing traditional cookstoves with more efficient, modern cookstoves. Even though modern stoves may directly burn fossil fuels or rely on power generated from fossil fuels – the methane avoided typically outweighs newly emitted greenhouse gases. This is because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The more inefficient cookstoves are replaced, the more of the greenhouse effect can be avoided. While clean cooking is inherently important, for health and socioeconomic reasons, this finding provides additional motivation to prioritise this goal.



Energy access is only the first rung of a ladder of increasing energy consumption that facilitates economic development. In recent years, several advanced economies have finally decoupled their economic growth from energy consumption. This happens especially in countries where the economy shifts away from manufacturing to lower-carbon activities such as service sector office jobs. However, the historic trajectory of economic development has been closely tied to increasing energy consumption.  


Sustainable Development Goal 7.1 focuses on the household as a starting point. This paints a relatively complete picture for cooking, but electricity usage is far more ubiquitous in our societies. A household’s electricity consumption approximately triples from simple task lighting and phone charging to water heating, cooling, and air circulation. As analysis published by the United Nations has demonstrated, scenarios based on different levels of household electricity consumption yield very different greenhouse gas footprints. 


Electricity is also necessary beyond the household. For commerce to develop, more kilowatt-hours of electricity and litres of fuel are needed to run shops and restaurants, propel sewing machines, power computers, etc. Some argue that industry is the essential starting point for combating poverty: by electrifying industry, we can enable a greater jump in revenue than at the household level. Industry can provide a sufficient anchor load of electricity demand to justify investment in power infrastructure. 


When considering the likely future increases in energy consumption from the populations first receiving access now, we find all the more justification to support renewable energy and efficient technologies, for the sake of the climate.  Building power systems based on clean energy today, especially in all contexts where low-carbon sources are the most cost-effective options, will also keep the door open for future generations of the developing world to increase their energy consumption without fear of climate consequences. 

Renewable Energy: Who Benefits and Who Decides? Wind Power in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec


Published: Paola Velasco and artwork by Ryan Ward.

Promoting common interest in sustainable development and environmental problems would be more effective if solutions resulted in all stakeholders being better off. However, this is rarely the case since strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions usually result in winners and losers (WCED, 1987), and renewable energy technologies (RETs) have not proven to be the exception. The adoption of ambitious renewable energy targets has had profound social, economic, and environmental implications that operate at scales ranging from local to global and has raised questions about social justice in capitalist societies. Therefore, identifying key social justice issues related to energy has become hugely important in advancing the proliferation of clean energy.

Wind power has largely improved from a technical point of view, becoming a relatively cheap and exploitable renewable resource that is now at the core of many strategies for climate change and the energy transition. It has been successfully implemented mainly in Asia (203,643 MW), Europe (161,330 MW), and North America (97,611 MW), becoming the world’s fastest-growing source of power generation in the last decade, and growing at 8 per cent to reach 486,749 MW in 2016 (GWEC 2016).  Nevertheless, its development has been marked by local social opposition that can be found in developed and developing countries alike. 

One example of adverse social implications is the development of wind energy in indigenous communities in Southern Mexico. Given the saturation of the energy markets in developed countries, the wind energy industry has turned their attention to emerging economies with significant wind resources. Mexico is considered to be an ideal location for large scale wind energy production, particularly the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a region that has been identified as one of the best areas in the world to establish wind farms. The average wind speed exceeds 10 m/s, while in the world 6.5 m/s is the average for energy generation. Moreover, wind in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is relatively stable, with a high percentage of wind hours per year, marking its energy potential standing as excellent. 

Following a major energy reform in 2008 that facilitated international private capital investments, large international utility companies started to operate in the region, producing up to 3,527MW in 2016. Nevertheless, these installations have faced levels of local social opposition. For instance, in 2012, a 396MW development that was planned to be the largest in Latin America was cancelled due to conflicts linked to land speculation and ethnic tensions between Zapotecs and Huaves. This caused an approximate loss of $7 million for the main investors (the global investment bank Macquarie, based in Australia, Mitsubishi Corporation, and Dutch pension investment group PGGM). While the establishment of wind farms was a good opportunity for the region in theory, the lack of social acceptance put further investments and the well-being of the local population at risk. 

One main concern raised by indigenous communities in the region is the unequal distribution of benefits and ills derived from wind energy developments. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec crosses the state of Oaxaca, a region shaped by an indigenous identity in the legacy of colonialism, with high levels of poverty. 56% of the Oaxaca population consider themselves indigenous, and it is one of three states with the highest indigenous population percentage in Mexico (INEGI 2015). It is also one of the most marginalised. 84% of the municipalities face a ‘moderate’, ‘high’ or ‘very high’ grade of marginalisation, according to the National Population Council’s (2015) marginalisation index, which considers deficiencies in basic education and housing, residence in small, dispersed and isolated localities, and low monetary income. 

Given the poverty situation, communities initially welcomed wind energy developments as a way of generating external income paid through land lease agreements and employment. However, members of the community argue that contrary to their initial expectations, only a small fraction of the population has benefited economically, resulting in the emergence of social inequalities that did not exist before the establishment of wind farms in the region. For instance, only 6.2% of the population has been a creditor to a land lease and 1.6% has a job in the local wind energy industry. 

Furthermore, wind energy developers in the region are not formally obliged to provide benefits to local communities. The lack of institutionalisation of benefit-sharing has led to the development of corporate practices that are implemented on an ad hoc basis and at the developer’s discretion. Consequently, developers view their contributions as altruistic, not as part of indigenous communities’ right to profit from their land and resources. Often, developers only offer benefits in exchange for acceptance of new windfarms or enlargement of existing ones. Moreover, these benefits are only received by a few, yet ills are spread throughout the region. Environmental impacts on the local wildlife – particularly birds and bats – as well as noise pollution, are felt by similarly by everyone within neighbouring communities.3 Thus, this unequal distribution of benefits and ills has caused a number of local conflicts that ultimately derive from different levels of resistance to new wind energy developments. 

Therefore, the development of wind energy infrastructure in Mexico has demonstrated that sustainable solutions are not necessarily paired with socially equitable outcomes. For development to sustainably evolve to tackle inequalities, adequate bottom-up processes to establish a more equal distribution of benefits and ills should be put in place. This is the holy grail of all development activities, and renewable energy projects are no exception. This is easier said than done, and the quest for the tools to make this happen in practice continues, well beyond the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Ecotourism: Reframing Conservation or Creating Dangerous Markets?


Published by: Rosie Wright, and artwork by Ryan Ward.

It’s the first night of my honeymoon and I’m showering from a bucket of rainwater under the star-pricked darkness of the rainforest canopy. We’ve eschewed the traditional luxury resorts hotels and are instead staying at the Madidi Jungle Eco Lodge, a resort in the Bolivian Amazon which aims to minimise the environmental impact of its guests, in part through its water, electricity and waste management.

Safari All-728

We’re not alone in looking for alternative ways to travel. A 2018 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council suggest that almost 10% of travel-related revenue now comes from ecotourism – a powerful share of an industry that accounts for one in ten jobs across the globe. It’s part of a growing movement in reaction to a greater understanding of the negative impacts of travel, including environmental degradation, overcrowding and climate change. And, given the financial importance of tourism for many developing countries, it’s a potential bridge between economic and environmental concerns: two areas that are more often placed in opposition. Such is its potential that the Sustainable Development Goals reference tourism three times, highlighting the important role it could play in preserving livelihoods, cultures and the environment – if only it is done well.

Madidi offers an excellent example to follow. Given the vital significance of the Amazon in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, environmental concerns are at the forefront. However, indigenous ownership and providing local skills training are another core part of the resort’s mission. Our guide, Raul sums up this balance, telling us that the ecolodge helps protect not just the land, by preventing it being used for logging and other damaging activity, but also their traditions of culture and custodianship. During our stay we get to learn a little of this as we are taught to make handicrafts and cook local dishes. 

It Madidi also offers a fairly representative sample of those who would dub themselves eco tourists: a combination of well-to-do vacationers who want to experience a unique environment with a personal touch and a younger ‘backpacking’ crowd who are keen to take up the more adventurous outdoor activities including trekking and river tubing. All eighteen guests are white and from the EU, UK or USA.  It is these demographics that have triggered some of the backlash against the ecotourist movement, with critics dubbing it a process of “greenwashing”: placating the consciences of wealthy travellers to keep tourist revenue coming in without challenging any of the power dynamics that underpin a lot of global poverty. 

In response to this Raul takes us to an abandoned banana farm, where the lodge team are contemplating building additional accommodation, to spot the Madidi titi. This monkey was only identified as a new species back in 2006 and originally named after a casino. The money that the casino spent on bidding to name the monkey has been given to a local organisation that protects Madidi from deforestation. His point seems clear: outsider intervention is inevitable and so it may as well be for the genuine benefit of local people and wildlife. I’m reminded of the words of river advocate Heather Hansmen: “we love what we know and we protect what we love”. Good ecotourism schemes hope to encourage people to act and advocate for a place after they return home. They seek to embed  embedby embedding a relationship with a destination that goes beyond a standard vacation, although perhaps only for those who can afford it.

However, not all ecotourism is created equal and some criticisms are justified. Two years later we are travelling across Botswana to experience the Okavango Delta, an oasis in the Kalahari Ddesert dubbed one of Africa’s ‘seven wonders’. It’s a unique ecosystem and one under threat from both climate change (, due to increased water loss), and political interests. The popularity of the region for tourism has helped stave off threats of damming in the area, since tourism is the second biggest contributor to Botswana’s economy. It also has provided economic opportunities for the local people to work as polers for the iconic makoro canoes which are the main transport in around the area. However the experience feels very different to our stay in Madidi, with less of a focus on protection.  Perhaps it’s the influx of greater numbers, around 50,000 tourists each year, to a smaller, more fragile area. We see litter floating in the delta as we glide past and when we arrive in our ‘eco camp’ I’m frustrated to note that we’re dependant on bottled water in plastic containers. 

Vocational opportunities have also encouraged large waves of migration to key access towns such as Maun, where we’ve come from, meaning that financial and cultural benefits are not so clearly realised as in more remote Madidi. Over a lethargic game of Uno in the blistering heat, a poler named David tells us that he’s not planning on staying in the job beyond the summer, talking of the fierce competition over tips and hoping that there are better prospects for him elsewhere.

This reflects another concern cited by critics, which is that ecotourism may unwittingly trap people into unsustainable paths of development. There’s a gloomy consensus amongst our guides that the animals are “moving on” from the areas most easily accessible from Maun, their migration habits affected by the water loss. This is borne out by patchy sightings – we spot only a few straggling giraffes and a distant wildebeest in our three- day trip – and our fellow travellers are vocal about their disappointment. In a business dependant on both tips and favourable reviews from tourists this may well translate into future reductions in visitors and revenue undermining the hopes of sustainability that ecotourism claims to offers.

A Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) report links this to the rise of ‘last chance tourism’ where tourists create spikes of resource demand on places and species that people think won’t exist for much longer. Not only does this risk hastening their demise but it creates short term infrastructure needs which, rather than become a useful investment for a community, end up being abandoned when interest dies down. This also raises the concern of what  the philosopher Michael Sandel calls the ‘moral limits of markets’: or the concern that once an action has been given a financial incentive it erodes the moral imperative that preceded it. If environmental protection becomes profitable but only for a brief time will it risk undermining previous motivations?

A few days after we leave Okavango I find myself discussing this issue with our ranger, Cedric, at the Stanley & Livingstone reserve and rhino sanctuary across the border in Zimbabwe. As part of the park’s anti-poaching training programme, he is gently dismissive of this perspective, reminding me that ecotourism operates alongside many other markets which impact local perceptions about conservation. He opines that no amount of tourist tips will compensate, for example, a poacher who could expect to net up to USD$60,000 dollars for a a single rhino horn. For him , and his colleagues, their work is about making Zimbabwe, and the world, a better place; and the benefit of ecotourism is simply to cover the costs, in this case paying for better security than can be afforded in the state-owned parks. He tells us enthusiastically about local campaigns and innovations being developed to protect the region’s national parks, reminding me again about ecotourism’s opportunity to teach and inspire. 

So, faced with the full complexities of the situation, how do we make sure that we support the full potential of ecotourism and avoid being part of its problems? I’m still left with more questions than answers.  reviewing the different arguments explored in this article. Ecotourism is a young enterprise, though, and will likely continue growing and adapting, with new variations and a push towards greater legitimacy. Perhaps there are still solutions waiting to be found that will help resolve some of these dilemmas. 

Another cautionary note from the GSTC paper was the risk of tourists wanting to become ‘short term locals’, wherein a genuine desire to see ‘behind the scenes’ of glossy travel brochures risks commodifying ways of life in a way that fossilises people. Instead we should remember the agency and ingenuity of the individuals creating and running ecotourism ventures and look to support where we think it’s being done well.

For us, the key to that has been becoming ever more informed. There’s a plethora of different schemes springing up to help the perplexed traveller such as the Green Tourism Business Scheme or the Eco Hotels Certified mark. However the lack of clarity or monitoring of such labels has also led to criticisms of greenwashing.  This has prompted a further layer of oversight from organisations like the Ecolabel Index and the European Ecotourism Labelling Standard, which have arisen to assess the relative values of different certifications and bring a level of standardisation. Yet the current situation is that there is still no single regulatory body nor any real restriction on using the term ‘eco-travel’ or related claims such as ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘pro-poor’ tourism. Furthermore, even legitimate schemes can charge fees which some travel providers can’t or don’t choose to pay. So whilst they are a starting point, any conscientious ecotraveller must take the time to do further research. Now Duduring our planning we speak with other travellers and locals where we can, look for resorts backed up by other charities and try to read impact reports, always knowing that everything comes with bias. For those to whom that sounds a little too much like ‘revising for your holidays’, there’s also travel agents who will undertake this for you if you trust them to be sufficiently critical on your behalf.

There’s also no consensus on exactly what the focus of ecotourism should be and whether climate change, habitat conservation or other environmental concerns should be prioritised, making this another instance in whichere individual decisions can influence further developments. For those who consider climate to be the ultimate consideration it’s possible that even the best resorts or tours still won’t provide sufficient balance. A 2012 European Environment Agency  (EEA) report held tourism to be the fourth highest contributor to pollution amongst the world’s industries, with travel (mostly flights) constituting 75% of this total. Given that many ecotourist resorts are in further-flung destinations than many ‘standard’ hotels, due to the rare ecosystems they are trying to protect and promote, there may often be no way for their target audience to fully forgo flights and other carbon-emitting transport to get there.

For absolute purists that may mean staycations are their only answer. But does that come at the expense of the opportunities of exploring new cultures, or simply provide the chance for different communities to better appreciate what they have locally? Should we, for example,  be teaching more about the climate change-related loss of the European hedgehog rather than relying on exotic locales to motivate us? Or are new innovations likely to provide an answer here too? One promising experience we had recently was in previewing a virtual reality travel experience which aims to recreate a snow leopard encounter coupled with narratives from local guides. Given that their Himalayan territories are fragile and not easily accessible,  could this could be an alternative that still enables local people to share their stories and be paid for conserving the animals.? Or perhaps it is a warning that if we do not get ecotourism (and our overall climate change strategy) right, these cultures , animals and habitats may soon only remain in a virtual world.  

Trump’s Wildfire Policy Overlooks Climate, Fans Political Flames, Lets Economy Burn


Published: Timothy Arvan, and artwork by Ryan Ward.

President Donald Trump has been known to fight fire with fire, aggressively countering his detractors on issues from border security to the economy with trademark firestorms of charged and often fallacious tweeting. The Administration’s response to last fall’s catastrophic California wildfires has been no exception to this pattern. In the wake of blazes which claimed 98 civilian lives, an inflammatory Executive Order has ignited a fiery debate over the efficacy of California’s forestry strategies. Ultimately, the policy amounts to little more than political blame-shifting and dangerously misguides the public on effective fire management. Most consequentially, the federal government has eschewed both economic logic and moral duty by failing to address escalating climate change costs to the region.


The Executive Order in question is clear in its objectives to promote “active management” of federal forests and rangelands, reduce wildfire risk and protect public safety. Cloaked in the lofty language of a federal wildfire strategy, however, the Order lays out a series of illogical and ignorant policy prescriptions that align with the president’s equally head-scratching claims blaming the state’s fire problem on insufficient “raking and cleaning […] like they do in Finland” and “bad environmental laws” causing local water shortages. To be clear, Finns do not rake their forests and California has no such water scarcity. 


Based on a prolific body of misinformation, the Executive Order directs Trump’s Interior and Agriculture departments to dramatically upscale brush and dead tree removal on federal lands, prescribing the extraction of 4.4 billion board feet of timber across 4.25 million acres in the coming year. While the efficacy of efforts to lower fire-causing fuel buildup has long been debated, the Trump Administration’s “strategy” to increase logging by 31 percent since 2017 has been roundly condemned by fire ecologists as ineffective. Unmoved by logic as ever, the president compounded a cause for political uproar with the suggestion that he will withhold millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster aid to California unless local officials “get their act together.” This attempt to hold the state’s feet to the fire is, of course, an unethical intimidation tactic beneath the dignity of the Chief Executive.


As the government plays politics with critical funding, efforts to quantify the damage of California’s fires have recently yielded the startling estimate that 2018’s blazes could become the most expensive natural disaster in US history. In the face of multi-billion dollar costs, California’s major insurance providers have scrambled to rethink the risks and associated coverage for wildfire protection in vulnerable areas of the state. However, losses extend far beyond the scope of traditional insurance-based estimates accounting for destroyed property, foregone business income, and public health impacts from hazardous smoke-related particulate matter. For instance, lost employment opportunities and declining tourism are expected to create severe declines in tax revenue for local and state governments. Additionally, factors including mudslides, exacerbated by heavy rains in areas uprooted in the fires, increase the costs of restoration and further drive down regional property values as fire-wary residents debate whether to rebuild or move out. Considering the full breadth of impacts, AccuWeather places total economic losses at $400 billion, or roughly two percent of the 2018 American GDP. 


Notably, economic losses from wildfires are inequitably distributed, disproportionately burdening low-income minority residents whose tighter budgets mean relatively high transition costs of relocating and finding new jobs. These populations may additionally experience a higher incidence of respiratory diseases and deterioration of pre-existing health conditions as low socioeconomic status has been identified as a principal indicator of health risk. As such, long-term wellness outcomes for the poor are unduly harmed by exposure to fire-induced particulate pollution. Indeed, municipalities across the state must grapple with broad public health repercussions from fire-induced urban air pollution episodes, while rural regions face innumerable agricultural and land management challenges, demanding innovative adaptation strategies. 


The sheer magnitude of California’s damages, combined with the weight of distributional injustice, underscores the economic and social case for urgent federal policy to combat climate-related threats. However, while a chorus of fire experts have called for comprehensive measures that incorporate adaptation plans and employ controlled burns to prevent massive, destructive blazes, the Trump Administration is content to distract, deflect, and demur. Speaking to California reporters at the height of twelve active fires, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke falsely maintained that “this has nothing to do with climate change,” preferring to blame “environmental terrorists” for obstructing management efforts. The objective reality is that climate change is already here, imposing an ever-diversifying array of threats to human-natural systems. Indeed, wildfire risk projections predict a significant intensification of the frequency and scale of catastrophic fires in California through 2100, all while population growth and continuous development of the state’s economic centers will magnify threats to local communities. In light of this dire outlook, misconceived policies like Trump’s abdicate federal leadership, renounce science and ignore the obvious humanitarian and economic imperative of addressing climate change, all in the interest of political expediency. 


Ultimately, Trump’s federal wildfire plan amounts to firing politically-tinged insults at California’s progressive institutions and should remain in the Twittersphere where it belongs. Meanwhile, in states like California, unmitigated climate change is sure to produce an outcome with which Trump is already intimately familiar: “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.

[1] “All False Statements Involving Donald Trump.” Edited by Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact, Nov. 2019.

[2]  Executive Order. No. 13855, 2019, pp. 45-48.

[3] Reidmiller, David. “Fourth National Climate Assessment: Summary Findings.” U.S. Global Change Research

  Program, 23 Nov. 2018.

[4] Boyer, Dave. “Trump Signs Executive Order to Create Federal Wildfire Strategy.” Associated Press News, 21 Dec.


[5] “California Wildfires: Finland Bemused by Trump Raking Comment.” BBC News, BBC, 19 Nov. 2018.

[6] Kelly, Caroline. “’Make America Rake Again’: Confusion in Finland over Trump’s Wildfire Comments.” CNN,

Cable News Network, 20 Nov. 2018.

[7] Friedman, Lisa. “Trump Inaccurately Claims California Is Wasting Water as Fires Burn.” The New York Times,

The New York Times, 6 Aug. 2018.

[8] Fears, Darryl, and Juliet Eilperin. “Trump’s Executive Order Will Cut More Forest Trees; CU Boulder Professor

Says ‘We Can’t Log Our Way out of the Fire Problem.’” The Denver Post, 14 Jan. 2019.

[9] Siegler, Kirk. “Will More Logging Save Western Forests From Wildfires?” NPR, 29 Aug. 2018.

[10] Hanson, Chad. “More Logging in California’s Forests Won’t Prevent Wildfires, No Matter What the Trump

Administration Says.” The Sacramento Bee, 14 Sept. 2018.

[11] Fears, Darryl. “Trump Quietly Issues Executive Order during Shutdown to Increase Logging and

Deforestation.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 15 Jan. 2019.

[12] Daniels, Jeff. “Trump Threatens to Cut off Federal Funding for California Wildfire Relief.” CNBC, 9 Jan. 2019.

[13] Myers, Joel N. “AccuWeather Predicts 2018 Wildfires Will Cost California Total Economic Losses of $400

Billion.” AccuWeather, 8 July 2019.

[14] DaSilva, Richard. “Latest Estimates of Insured Losses from California Wildfires at $9B to $13B.” Insurance

   Journal, 20 Nov. 2018.

[15] Stein, Vicky. “8 Numbers That Tell the Grim Story of California’s Wildfires.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

30 Nov. 2018.

[16] See footnote 13.

[17] Dowd, Jennifer Beam, and Allison E. Aiello. “Socioeconomic Differentials in Immune Response.” Epidemiology,

vol. 20, no. 6, 2009, pp. 902–908.

[18] Culver, Nina. “U.S. Forest Service Ecologist Says Mega Wildfires Require More than Suppression, Urging 3-Step Solution.” The Spokesman-Review, 17 Oct. 2018.

[19] Luery, Mike. “Environmentalists Partially to Blame for Severity of CA’s Wildfires, Interior Chief Says.” KCRA, 13 Aug. 2018.

[20] Hurteau, Matthew D., et al. “Projected Effects of Climate and Development on California Wildfire Emissions

through 2100.” Environmental Science & Technology, 2014, pp. 2298–2304.

[21] Bierman, Noah. “Trump on His Threat to North Korea: ‘Maybe It Wasn’t Tough Enough.’” Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug. 2017.