Developing countries exploring pathways to climate compatibility

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Modelling the divide: Development and climate change in Copacabana

Rio, or rather the tourist precincts of Ipanema and Copacabana, is a place that seems to be much as you left it. People kicking back, beach bars and lots of vital looking citizens of all ages exercising with purpose. Brazilians in general do things with purpose. Of course one is dimly aware that Rio is an enormous city in one of the world’s most unequal societies and that there is probably a good measure of human struggle and misery in places out there in the sub-tropical haze. We’re here to compare notes on linking models from different disciplines to get better answers on what the consequences of greenhouse gas mitigation policies could be and there are strong teams from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and South Africa. The talk is of equilibriums, closure rules, least cost optimisation, social accounting matrices, iterations and technology rich abstractions of sectors.

All comfortably abstruse and coddled in a beachfront hotel in one of the world’s beautiful cities. The stakes for our respective countries are high though given the quantum of vulnerable people who could be affected. Ours are countries that straddle the worlds of industrial development, placing on us an obligation to mitigate externalities, and of poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment, placing on us an obligation to use the bounties of our economies to uplift people. As it turns out the modelling challenges in informing decisions that mitigate GHG emissions without extensive harm to the greater economy as determined by traditional economic indicators like GDP and unemployment are extensive. These were grappled with in an optimistic fashion, even if I often found myself baffled at times. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising then that participation was more muted in a session on a ‘Development First’ approach – making human development the main goal of a modelling exercise and trying to achieve GHG emissions as a co-benefit. There’s nothing so dispiriting as having a problem restated when one is still trying to get proficient with its initial form.

Responses ranged from abandoning modelling to embrace activism if one wanted to achieve real change to the necessity to define new criteria for development characterised by less private consumption (for instance car ownership). The latter is completely a mathematical reality. Given the impacts of current resource consumption it seems intuitively calamitous that the poorer two thirds of the world’s population should consume at the same rate of the richer third and yet a truly global concern for the environment requires these people to develop and have access to education. As scientists though, we have a responsibility to demonstrate conclusively to someone why their aspirations need to take a different course before we ask this of them or impose it on them. Models, experiments and analyses are one way, but communicating these are hard. EconLab II was a positive and collegial step in tackling the challenging trade-off between development and the consequences of development. The road remains long if we are to try and factor the aspirations and upliftment of all our respective countries’ citizens in our models.

Adrian Stone works at the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town. For more information on Econlab 2 and access to workshop resources visit the workshop page.

Image: Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of Marise Caetano, available here.

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