Low Carbon Development And Authoritarianism

Developed countries, mostly democratic ones, have created the problem of climate change. International climate politics rests on this premise. However, the emphasis of future mitigation and adaptation will lie with developing countries, many of them authoritarian. Among the largest greenhouse gas-emitting countries are China and India, which according to the World Resources Institute, already account for over a quarter of global CO2 emissions, while the EU and United States produce roughly a third. And while the expectation is that developed countries will cut their own emissions and help reduce those in the South, developing countries’ emissions are projected to keep rising. Developing countries are also the most vulnerable to negative future impacts of climate change.

Middle Eastern states aren’t the biggest problem when it comes to climate change mitigation in the conventional sense. In 2007, the MENA region produced 7.5% of global CO2, of which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries accounted for less than a third. Adaptation will be a serious issue, though. In the Levant, water security is the first victim. In the Gulf, desalination helps postpone trouble, but rising sea levels might mean bye-bye for the Palms and Pearls. Most urgently, however (with the definition of "urgent" attracting a lot of debate), the world is moving towards a low-carbon economy and away from fossil fuels. When it comes to climate change, this has long been the biggest headache of Middle Eastern oil producers, Saudi Arabia foremost among them.

I have just completed a three-year study on the difficult relationship between the oil-exporting Gulf monarchies and climate change. From my Nordic environmentalist perspective, the meteoric rise of alternative energies and environmental sustainability on the national agendas of some of these states is a positive development. Abu Dhabi, with its Masdar and nuclear energy programme, is the unquestionable pioneer, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia are close behind. I'll write more about these developments in upcoming posts. What I find disturbing is that, as Abu Dhabi has demonstrated, greening the economy doesn't seem to require democratic government. On the contrary: democracy might slow down the transition to a low-carbon economy: where else than in a (wealthy, US-friendly) authoritarian state, where a handful of people on the top take care of state "business", could a government proceed from stated intent to build nuclear plants, choosing a nuclear contractor, and starting ground preparations, in less than three years?

But how far does this "authoritarianism is good for greening" argument take us? In their book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy (2007), David Shearman and Joseph Smith offer a wildly controversial argument: liberal democracy produces environmental deterioration and climate change, and surviving climate change requires authoritarianism. In The Politics of Climate Change (2009),  Anthony Giddens disagrees, pointing out that liberal democracies have led the global turn to focus on environmental issues. He also notes that totalitarian states, and even modernised authoritarian states like China and Russia, generally have poor green records, lack environmental civil societies, and have low levels of scientific and technological development. With regards to the Gulf states, this is to the point. The few green NGOs that exist have been co-opted by the governments so as to reduce "noise". Technology and scientists can indeed be bought, but for now, democracies are still needed to produce them.

The dilemma -- democratic vs. authoritarian low carbon development -- is a hard one; the list of pros and cons goes on and on. On the one hand, the kind of radical changes needed for a "world saving" energy consumption transition is one that might not be possible via democratic means. On the other, most probably agree that in principle, a small elite alone shouldn't be taking decisions affecting the daily lives of citizens. Authoritarian states with green agendas can produce more policy continuity than democratic societies. The quest for personal legitimacy, however, can change policies overnight in states where power is concentrated at the very top, and where leaders engage in intricate ruling bargains with their populations, like in the Gulf.

I personally would place my bets on the potential for democratic low carbon development, not based on any factual evidence, but rather on an emotional argument: good things can't come of authoritarian states. Right?

Non-democratic governments in China and the United Arab Emirates are pushing ahead with ambitious alternative energy agendas. India, the world’s most populous democracy, is famous for its hard-core development-first climate policy. The United States, the beacon of liberty and the lead actor in the global climate change regime, refuses to commit to climate action internationally and has major difficulties in acting domestically.

This is a dilemma without an obvious resolution. While modern environmentalism is a product of Western democracies, environmentalism as such -- living in harmony with our natural surroundings -- is a universal feature of successful civilisations. Modernisation and development have distanced many societies from it and perhaps it is positive that "visionary" governments take the lead in reintroducing it to places where people have become too alienated to take action themselves – without forgetting the important principle of right to development of groups and societies.