Hard Choices About Heavy Metal On a Hot Planet


Publish Date:
July 6, 2021
Publication Title:
Journal Article
  • Jeffrey Ball, Hard Choices About Heavy Metal On a Hot Planet, Joule, July 6, 2021.
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From the Introduction:

Over the past year, in a shift with major consequences for capitalism and the climate, many of the world’s leading economies and multinational corporations have pledged to slash their carbon emissions to “net-zero” by mid-century. That degree of environmental progress—the level scientists say would be necessary to stave off the worst effects of global warming—would be unprecedented, and most of the countries and companies that have promised it are nowhere near on track to achieve it.

But as investors, policymakers, and corporate executives prepare to gather in November 2021 in Glasgow for a United Nations climate conference intended in part to leverage this surge of ostensible carbon-cutting commitment, it is worth underscoring that, even in the unlikely event that the players that have made these pledges followed through on them, it wouldn’t be enough. Solving the climate conundrum would require something far beyond even the deep emissions cuts that major economic powers—among them the United States, China, and members of the European Union—have promised within their borders. It would require a massive reduction in the carbon intensity of hundreds of large infrastructure projects now being financed and built across a patchwork of emerging economies from Africa to Asia to Latin America.

These infrastructure projects—power plants, pipelines, roads, airports, and more—will lock in patterns of energy use, and thus trajectories of carbon emissions, that will shape the climate for decades to come. Of all the political and economic decisions affecting the environment, those determining the carbon intensity of infrastructure slated to be built in the developing world matter the most. Heavy metal in fast-growing nations is the global-warming litmus test.

New analysis, based on a new set of data about infrastructure projects in emerging economies, illuminates the flows of finance that make those projects happen. It clarifies who is bankrolling what, where, and through which financial structures. It also helps to explain the motives that guide the various actors in choosing the sorts of infrastructure that they do; understanding those motives is a prerequisite to changing those choices in ways that would meaningfully help the climate.

Two related insights from the new data and analysis have special relevance for decision-making in Glasgow: the growing agency that countries receiving foreign funding wield in shaping the carbon intensity of the infrastructure that is built within their borders, and the range of powerful players in those countries whose fortunes will rise or fall depending on those decisions. These developing countries face a monumental challenge: restructuring their political economies toward lower-carbon endeavors. As for the leading economies professing their commitment to the climate fight, they have a duty to help facilitate those domestic restructurings thousands of miles away. Their challenge is not merely to boost clean-energy financing, though of course that is necessary. It also is to help meaningfully cushion the shock that decarbonization otherwise would have on the high-carbon portions of these emerging economies. The first without the second would constitute little more than wishful thinking.