Davos 2023: Financing the Sustainable Energy Transition is Essential for the World’s Climate Survival
The Swiss Alps never fail to lift the mood – their endless beauty and dramatic skylines allowing us to contemplate the wonders of the natural world. And as we contemplate their majesty and fragility, the desire to protect all we see is a powerful, visceral emotion. Distinguished global thought leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January certainly felt this way, making impassioned pleas for environmental stewardship, international cooperation and urgent action to mitigate the worst impacts of man-made climate change.
But the simple truth is that global warming is not going to be solved by taking more action in Western Europe, where the carbon intensity of economic growth (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) continues to fall and where total CO2 emissions are already lower today than in any non-COVID year since 1964. Nor is the solution to be found in the United States, where total emissions have been falling for more than twenty years.
Back in our Alpine paradise, we see that Switzerland’s total CO2 emissions in 2021 – the latest available figures – amounted to just 35 million tons (Mt). That’s for a full calendar year. Compare this to China whose emissions last year were 31.5 million tons per day or to India’s 52.1 million tons per week. Switzerland is responsible for less than one-thousandth of the world’s total CO2 emissions.
Obviously, Switzerland is a small country. But its much bigger neighbour, Germany, produces just 1.8% of global emissions and the UK just 1.6%. It takes China just 3 weeks to emit the same amount of CO2 that Germany does in a full year.
For all its tiny contribution to the planet’s problem, the fact remains that Swiss glaciers are shrinking. Davos delegates saw far less snow than in previous years and many of the lower-lying ski destinations across Europe are currently struggling to stay open. The symptoms of global warming are clearly visible in Switzerland but the root cause is thousands of kilometres away.
The eight largest economies in Asia collectively produce 18.9 billion tons of CO2 per annum. And though China accounts for more than 70% of this, the other seven have greater total emissions than the entire EU-27 group of nations. These Asian countries – driven by rapid economic and population growth – are increasing both their CO2 emissions and the carbon intensity of their output. A just and sustainable energy transition for them is an urgent global priority, delivering for the region’s Industrial Revolution without the environmental damage and pollution suffered in Europe and North America when countries there first grew prosperous.
The benefits of investment in Asia’s energy infrastructure – greening its electricity production, stabilising its transmission grids, and making it more efficient – will be felt not just in that region, but around the world. Global warming is, by definition, a global problem and addressing its primary cause will benefit everyone. Not just the rapidly growing populations in Asia’s South and South-Eastern nations, but coastal atolls, small island states and even, yes, Swiss alpine resorts.
Key to this energy transition is understanding not just why Asia matters in its own right, but why it is so important to the rest of the world. For Europe and North America to offshore vast swathes of manufacturing industry to that continent then to lecture about emissions is not just hypocritical, but ultimately self-defeating in the absence of remedial action. There is only one planet and its weather systems are both complex and interconnected. Asia matters to all of us.
Mobilising capital at pace and at scale to support and accelerate the region’s energy transition is of the utmost urgency. Yes, we can all play our very modest part in Western Europe but diligently recycling our trash and signalling our virtue by driving $70,000 electric cars is really not going to shift the dial on climate change globally.
Instead, we should be investing in real assets that have real and measurable impact. Already, fund managers in Europe have downgraded more than $140bn in so-called ESG and sustainability-branded products which they fear would leave them vulnerable to regulatory sanctions under the EU’s SFDR reporting regime. Downgrading their classifications from Article 9 to 8, or from 8 to 6 is a tacit acknowledgment that financial assets cannot meet the sometimes exaggerated claims of their sponsors. These funds would be better utilised to meet the pressing needs of the real world and to finance a just and fair energy transition.
Energy policy across the Asia region is framed to attract foreign capital to fund the development of sustainable infrastructure assets. With the public and private sectors working together, long-term contracts, the rule of law, rapid economic growth and sheer demand pressure make this the decade of Asian investment opportunity. For international investors, financing Asia’s energy future has never looked like a more attractive proposition.