Healthy climate and healthy economy: friends not enemies!

Can we have a healthy planet and a healthy economy at the same time?

One thing is certain, there will be no healthy economy without a healthy climate. To get both we need to get the framework right. At Tearfund we’ve been lobbying and campaigning on climate for years. Throughout my time there have been notable contributions to help move us forward from the deadlock of negotiations. Today we may have another such contribution. ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’ is a ‘New Climate Economy’ report which concludes “countries at all levels of income now have the opportunity to build lasting economic growth at the same time as reducing the immense risks of climate change”. Let’s hope they can deliver and that governments and businesses are listening.

The report caught my eye because it very much mirrors Tearfund’s own emerging thinking in this area.  Our current high carbon, high physical consumption, global economy has been great at driving down poverty around the world over the past 100 years, but has done so at enormous environmental cost.  In the future such a model is not desirable or possible, instead we need to transition to a just and sustainable economy which is still effective at eliminating extreme poverty and reducing inequality but is also driven by, for example, clean energy and economic models based on services and knowledge rather than being resource-intensive.

Better Growth, Better Climate raises a myriad of proposals around compact cities, food production, energy systems, raising resource efficiency, investment in infrastructure, carbon prices, technology innovation and a host of other measures.  No doubt many of these will be hotly debated in the coming weeks, questions like: how far are win-wins possible in all these areas; is the role envisioned for GM crops helpful; is the proposed phased shift away from fossil fuels far or fast enough?

Whatever the details of these discussions, they should not be allowed to detract from the overriding message of the report – a healthy climate or a healthy economy are not choices or contradictions, the two belong together round the same side of the table. They are essential for each other! Business as usual, in our high carbon, high consumption global economy, is not an option.  My visit to Zimbabwe three weeks ago reminded me all over again why.

“We used to get five months of rain a year, now we get three and people are starving.”

Climate change is a very real economic reality for poor farmers like Joe in Zimbabwe. Joe and his neighbours tell the same story that can now be heard all over the world: “the weather is changing, seasons are no longer predictable, droughts, floods and severe storms are increasing.”  Traditional small-holders and commercial farming practices in Zimbabwe are struggling to cope with both less rainfall overall and heavier isolated downpours which result in the loss of nutrient-rich topsoil.

Fortunately Joe and his neighbours are now practising ‘Foundations for Farming’ methods pioneered by Tearfund partners.  By adopting natural approaches to farming such as reduced ploughing, leaving a layer of mulch on the topsoil and rotating crops, Joe and his neighbours are experiencing amazing yields, much better than through standard commercial farming methods. For example average yields of 3-5 tonnes per hectare can be expected compared to 1 tonne per hectare as a country average. The fruits of this labour can not only feed Joe’s family, but also be sold and reinvested.  I was struck by how incredibly hard working and entrepreneurial Joe and his neighbours were and their approach was both environmentally sustainable and profitable.  They were living examples of how a healthy climate and healthy economy are friends not enemies.

Escalating climate change will result in both environmental devastation and economic poverty for all of us.  As Joe and his friends have discovered in Zimbabwe, the just and sustainable  businesses of the future are both better for the environment and more prosperous.  We will be launching a report in early 2015 on what key shifts are necessary to help make this transition. We hope these will contribute to the debate that the New Climate Economy report has begun and demonstrate what people like Joe are already living out.  We’ll not only be addressing the regulation and legislative solutions, but the role civil society has to play in changing the tide of high resource-consumption behaviour. As Tolstoy reminds us in his epic, War and Peace: “it’s hard to thank any single individual for altering history; more often, the ship of state alters course only because tides are vastly shifting underneath.”