Here is a fictional monologue on climate change by the rich world addressing the poor: 

“Hey, China. Hey, India and all you other developing countries. Of course you need to grow your economies and create more wealth, employment, opportunity. And for that you do need to consume more energy, more water and more food. That’s completely understood and who could possibly take that right away from you?”

“Yes, we also – all of us together – have this other problem called climate change. It’s caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and agricultural practices. We (the rich guys) built our economies on cheap fossil fuels, back in the days. We didn’t know better. But now we do, and we are changing our ways! (A little slowly, perhaps. Because, you know, vested interests and path dependency… and, in the end, we are not as afraid of climate change as you should be. But let’s not lose ourselves in details).”

“Anyway: the really GOOD news is: you don’t have to go down the same route: you can develop sustainably. Isn’t that great? It makes so much more sense! For you! Yes, it will also help us all in solving the climate change problem, but think about it: It is the best choice for you – independently of climate change. So, your interests and our interests are not at odds. We all want the same thing.”

“Let me spell it out. The ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture with excessive use of fertilizers and water? Undermines the long-term productivity of your land (and causes emissions). Better make your agriculture sustainable! Building cities for cars and cars that run on petrol? Just leads to congestion and air pollution (and causes emissions). Better design sustainable cities and support electric mobility! You want to build your electricity supply on coal? Ah, bad idea: terrible pollution of air, water, and soil (and lots of emissions). People will suffer and die. Better: build your future on renewables! You want to create jobs, be healthy and become a technology leader? Invest into sustainability (and reduce emissions)!”

“So there you are: sustainability and combatting climate change dovetail so nicely that there is no conflict of interests at all.” — end of fictional monologue

I admit: I believe in that line of argument myself. But sometimes it seems too neat to be true. At some level, it might be evident that what’s good for the organism at large (the planet) is good for all its constituent parts. But I wonder if this is really, always true. If sustainability makes so much sense, why are the rich countries not changing their economic systems more rapidly? Do they believe their own story? Are there any fault lines?

  • Local vs. global: Are there solutions/technologies that improve the local environment but cause global warming? For example, that cause emissions through reducing air or water pollution?
  • Timing: Should we develop quickly and then clean up afterwards, when we have the money? What is the right trade-off?
  • Liquidity: Sustainability tends to be an investment into the future (energy efficiency, renewables, etc.) that pays off after some time. What, if the pay off is too late? What is too late from an economic, social, political point of view?

It would be a pleasure to have feedback on this post, including useful links to research and other ideas.