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Climate Change

Climate of hope, amid a season of summitry: Anticipation builds for vital summits on sustainability and climate change

Christopher Colford's picture
Speeding through a season of summitry, the world’s policymakers now have sustainability at the forefront of their autumn agenda – and the private sector, as well, must rise to the sustainability challenge. Anticipation is building for this month’s opening of the United Nations General Assembly, where the next-generation blueprint for global development – the long-awaited, painstakingly crafted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  – will enshrine sustainability as the central long-term international priority.
Sustainability writ large – in all its environmental, social and economic dimensions – has been the theme driving the global debate as the SDGs have taken shape. A comprehensive plan that prioritizes 17 objectives – with 169 indicators to measure their progress toward completion – the SDGs will frame the global agenda through 2030. The SDGs’ adoption – at a U.N. summit from September 25 to 27 – will be a pivotal checkpoint along this year’s complex pathway of diplomacy, which will culminate in Paris in December with a crucial conference on the greatest of all sustainability issues: climate change.

Optimism seems to be steadily increasing as diplomats continue to negotiate a global climate-change deal. The hope is for an ambitious agreement at the so-called COP 21 conference – the 21st gathering of the Conference of Parties in the climate-change negotiations. The question, however, is how ambitious that pact will be.

As Rachel Kyte – the World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy on Climate Change – pointed out in a start-of-September forum at the World Bank: “I think that everything is in place for a deal to be struck in Paris, a deal that is universal, that brings everybody in to the table. . . . So a universal deal, a universal framework . . . is possible. The question, I think, is how strong a deal it's going to be.”
Rachel Kyte on Climate Action

As the clock ticks down to the deadline for a deal in Paris, Kyte (in conversation with Kalee Kreider of the United Nations Foundation) offered a detailed analysis of the intricacies surrounding the final stages of the negotiations: “The question, really, now is the level of ambition, the strength of that deal. And that's politics, not science. That's politics, not economics.”

Can index insurance protect poor farmers against climate change risks?

Gloria M. Grandolini's picture
Insuring crops against unforeseen weather events is a standard practice among farmers in rich countries.
Traditional insurance is either unavailable or is very expensive in many developing countries, leaving small farmers particularly vulnerable.
A severe drought, a devastating earthquake or another weather disaster can wipe out small farmers. Such uncertainties also make them more risk averse and less likely to invest in their farms.

For success and sustainability, seek broad social ‘well-being’; Good governance promotes a ‘virtuous cycle’ of growth

Christopher Colford's picture

Beyond the cold calculus of GDP and TFP and FDI, development is about promoting strong societies as well as propelling powerful economies. But how can we measure societies’ progress toward success? Some may try to calculate “Gross National Happiness” as a yardstick, and some may envision “getting to Denmark” as the ideal end-of-history destiny of development – but are there patterns that reveal how societies can flourish?

Two recent Washington seminars suggest that – by pursuing innovation and inclusion, and by focusing on broad-scale social “well-being” – policymakers can define realistic paths toward development success.

The methodologies used by Harvard economist Philippe Aghion at an International Monetary Fund forum and by former World Bank strategist Enrique Rueda-Sabater at a Center for Global Development discussion may have been different, but their conclusions were in harmony: Societies thrive – in a sustainable way – when inclusion and innovation help expand the circle of opportunity, and when strong governance standards lead to sound civic decision-making.

Taken together, the two seminars’ insights should help inform policymakers’ debate about the Sustainable Development Goals, which are due to be approved in September at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

Aghion, at an IMF seminar (sponsored by its Low-Income Countries Strategy Unit) on June 30, approached the topic of “Making Growth Inclusive” by imagining “how to enhance productivity growth while promoting social mobility.” Presenting data from a recent paper on “Innovation and Top-Income Inequality,” which he recently co-authored with an all-star team of economists, Aghion outlined the way that income and wealth inequality have drastically soared in developed countries since the mid-1970s – analyzing trends that by now are sadly familiar to the squeezed middle class, as calculated in the esteemed work of Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

Building on that data, Aghion took the inequality-and-inclusion logic several steps further. He lamented the way that “skill-biased technological change” has (in the absence of policy safeguards) provoked societies to stratify along the lines of wealth, income, education and connections. Yet “creative destruction” is inevitable in “a Schumpeterian world,” reasoned Aghion: A significant factor expanding the wealth gap is the same process of continuous economic renewal that helps economies advance. “There is a big [economic] premium to being a superstar innovator,” he asserted, noting that “you can become rich by innovating” – and thus “innovation is a big part of top-1-percent income inequality.”

Philippe Aghion

“Creative destruction is good for social mobility” and broader inclusion, in the long run, because it causes a steady procession of “new innovators to replace old incumbents.” The effect of each wave of innovation is fleeting, especially in a hyperspeed economy: “You get temporary ‘rents’ when you innovate. You don’t get them forever,” because the relentless Schumpeterian process will eventually cause yesterday’s innovators to become, in turn, tomorrow’s has-beens.

The darker danger of entrenched inequality occurs, said Aghion, when incumbent interests use their political power to lobby for the protection of their advantages – whether by pleading for tax-code favors, seeking government-imposed barriers to the entry of new competitors, or purchasing influence with pliant politicians through campaign donations. (In an aside on U.S. politics, Aghion pointed to his paper’s data linking a state’s representation on the congressional Appropriations Committees with its amount of federal favors – a shrewd quantification of the pork-barrel compulsions of Capitol Hill.)

Because innovation promotes social mobility and thus greater inclusiveness, Aghion contended that “innovation is a good guy; lobbying is a bad guy.” So “if you’re for inclusive growth, then you will be against lobbying and [the creation of] entry barriers.”

Focusing simply on present-day inequality is less informative than focusing on social mobility, he asserted. There’s nothing wrong with an economy that bestows ample financial rewards upon genuine innovators who create new products and processes. There is, however, something deeply wrong – and economically growth-inhibiting – with governments that allow no-longer-innovative incumbents to use their political connections to suppress potential competitors.

The IMF panel’s respondents amplified Aghion’s analysis. World Bank economist Daniel Lederman noted that it would be wise to use “the lexicon of ‘inequality of opportunity’,” because some degree of wealth inequality is inevitable (and perhaps even desirable) when individuals’ talent and effort are rewarded with rising incomes. IMF economist Benedict Clements – deploring the “great degree of disparity in ‘equality of opportunity’ ” that now prevails in advanced economies, including the United States – noted that there need be “no conflict between equity and efficiency if you design your policies right.”

Getting policies right – by upholding strong standards of governance – was also one of the underlying themes at a July 21 seminar at the Center for Global Development led by Rueda-Sabater, who is now a senior advisor to the Boston Consulting Group and a visiting fellow among CGD’s strong lineup of scholars. Rueda-Sabater is well remembered at the World Bank for leading a research team’s detailed “scenario planninganalyses that, in 2009, discerned the contours of three possible scenarios for the world in the year 2020.

Presenting a recent BCG report, “Why Well-Being Should Drive Growth Strategies,” Rueda-Sabater outlined an imaginative BCG diagnostic tool: the “Sustainable Economic Development Assessment” (SEDA), which measures the relative well-being of 149 countries by gauging their success in converting wealth into well-being – that is to say, in effectively translating their potential into tangible progress.


It’s Heating Up: Industry Needs Climate-Friendly Policies to Keep Cool and Competitive

Etienne Kechichian's picture

Emiko Kashiwagi / Flickr

Industries account for nearly one-third of direct and indirect global greenhouse-gas emissions, and they will be playing an increasingly important role in achieving the global targets expected to be set at the international climate summit in Paris in December. For example, the cement (5 percent), chemicals (7 percent) and iron and steel (7 percent) sectors account for nearly one-fifth of all global greenhouse-gas emissions, and those sectors have significant potential to reduce those emissions.
Tackling climate change by focusing on industries has long been a contentious issue. Some industries claim that regulation will impede economic growth by imposing additional burdens on competitive sectors. In some cases, they have an argument; but, if it is designed well and adapted to the context, a smart and timely intervention can influence a socially and economically positive systemic change.
Many businesses themselves, by pursuing cost-effective, long-term, environmentally sustainable production, long ago realized that “going green” can be highly advantageous, and they have been taking a pro-active approach toward addressing the issue precisely because it makes business sense. One group of global business leaders – including Unilever, Holcim, Virgin Group and others – have taken their commitment further by encouraging governments to lend their support for net-zero emissions strategies by 2050.
Even in developing countries, companies like Intel are investing millions of dollars in energy efficiency to save on current and future energy costs. The company has already saved $111 million since 2008 as a result of $59 million worth of sustainability investments in 1,500 projects worldwide.

Source: New Climate Economy 2014; World Bank World Development Indicators 

The sentiment that climate action by both the private sector and the public sector is urgent was also an important theme highlighted by World Bank Group President Jim Kim during January's World Economic Forum conference in Davos. Mitigation measures, such as energy-efficiency policies, have long been seen as a way to improve profits and manage risks. The logic for energy efficiency, a key set of abatement actions by the manufacturing sector, is there.
The recent New Climate Economy initiative, produced by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, estimates that at least 50 percent – and, with broad and ambitious implementation, potentially up to 90 percent – of the actions needed to get onto a pathway that keeps warming from exceeding 2°C could be compatible with the goal of ensuring the competitiveness of industries.

If you want to go far, go together

Jana Malinska's picture

A new global network of Climate Innovation Centers will support the most innovative private-sector solutions for climate change.
Pop quiz: What does an organic leather wallet have in common with a cookstove for making flatbread and a pile of recycled concrete?
Believe it or not, each of these represents something revolutionary: a private sector-driven approach to climate change. Each of these products – yes, even concrete – is produced by an innovative clean-tech company. And as of March 26th, those businesses, and hundreds more like them, have something else in common. They’re connected through infoDev's newly established global network of Climate Innovation Centers (CICs), an innovative project that is taking the idea of green innovation beyond borders.
Having piloted the CIC model in seven different countries – Kenya, South Africa, the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Morocco, Ghana and Vietnam – it was time for infoDev, a global entrepreneurship program in the World Bank Group’s Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice, to follow a time-honored business practice: to scale up and take this movement global.

And so, as part of last month’s South Africa Climate Innovation Conference, we joined forces with 14 experts from the seven different countries where the CICs operate to establish the foundations of the world’s first global network devoted to supporting green growth and clean-tech innovation.

CIC staff debate and discuss the new CIC Network during the South Africa Climate Innovation Conference.

This global network of Climate Innovation Centers – business incubators for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – has been designed to help local ventures take full advantage of the fast-growing clean-technology market. The infoDev study “Building Competitive Green Industries” estimates that over the next decade $6.4 trillion will be invested in clean technologies in developing countries. An even more promising fact is that, out of this amount, about $1.6 trillion represents future business opportunities for SMEs, which are important drivers of job creation and competitiveness in the clean-tech space.

Disaster risk and climate threats: Taking action to create better financial solutions

Olivier Mahul's picture

As the people of Vanuatu begin the painstaking task of assessing the damage to their homes, businesses, and their communities in the wake of Cyclone Pam, another assessment is underway behind the scenes.

Given the intensity of the category 5 storm and the reports of severe damage, the World Bank Group is now exploring the possibility of a rapid insurance payout to the Government of Vanuatu under the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative (PCRAFI). 

The Pacific catastrophe risk insurance pilot stands as an example of what’s available to protect countries against disaster risks. The innovative risk-pooling pilot determines payouts based on a rapid estimate of loss sustained through the use of a risk model. 

The World Bank Group acts as an intermediary between Pacific Island countries and a group of reinsurance companies – Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, Sompo Japan Insurance, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance and Swiss Re. Under the program, Pacific Island countries – such as Vanuatu, the Cook Island, Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tonga – were able to gain access to aggregate risk insurance coverage of $43 million for the third (2014-2015) season of the pilot. 

Japan, the World Bank Group, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) partnered with the Pacific Island nations to launch the pilot in 2013. Tonga was the first country to benefit from the payout in January 2014, receiving an immediate payment of US $1.27 million towards recovery from Cyclone Ian. The category 5 cyclone hit the island of Ha’apai, one of the most populated of Tonga’s 150 islands, causing $50 million in damages and losses (11 percent of the country’s GDP) and affected nearly 6,000 people.

Globally, direct financial losses from natural disasters are steadily increasing, having reached an average of $165 billion per year over the last 10 years, outstripping the amount of official development assistance almost every year. Increasing exposure from economic growth, and urbanization—as well as a changing climate—are driving costs even further upward. In such situations, governments often find themselves faced with pressure to draw funding away from basic public services, or to divert funds from development programs.

Investing in Innovative Financial Solutions

The World Bank Group and other partners have been working together successfully on innovative efforts to scale up disaster risk finance. One important priority is harnessing the knowledge, expertise and capital of the private sector. Such partnerships in disaster risk assessment and financing can encourage the use of catastrophe models for the public good, stimulating investment in risk reduction and new risk-sharing arrangements in developing countries.

The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) is another good example of the benefits of pooled insurance schemes, and served as the model for the Pacific pilot. Launched in 2007, this first-ever multi-country risk pool today operates with sixteen participating countries, providing members with aggregate insurance coverage of over $600 million with 8 payments made over the last 8 years totaling of US$32 million. As a parametric sovereign risk transfer facility, it provides member countries with immediate liquidity following disasters.

We also know that better solutions for disaster risk management are powered by the innovation that results when engineers, sector specialists, and financial experts come together to work as a team. The close collaboration of experts in the World Bank Group has led to the rapid growth of the disaster risk finance field, which complements prevention and risk reduction. 

Davos Sees Challenges, ‘Smart Cities’ Seize Opportunities: Finding Sustainable Solutions Via Public-Private Dialogue

Christopher Colford's picture

As the world’s policymakers and business leaders converge in Davos, Switzerland for tomorrow’s opening of the World Economic Forum, there’s certainly no shortage of global threats for them to worry about during the WEF’s annual marathon of policy seminars and economic debates. A world of anxiety enshrouds this week’s conference theme of the “New Global Context,” judging by the WEF’s latest Global Risks Report: Its analysis of 28 urgent threats and 13 ominous long-term trends offers a comprehensive catalogue of extreme dangers to social stability and even human survival.

As if the Davos data isn’t worrisome enough, several just-issued scientific studies – which document worsening trends in climate change, humanity’s imminent collision with the limits of the planet’s resilience and the intensifying damage being wrought by voracious consumption-driven growth – trace a relentlessly gloomy trajectory.

Relieving some of the substantive tension, there’s also often a puckish undercurrent within each year’s Davos news coverage. Poking holes in the self-importance of Davos’ CEOs and celebrities – with varying degrees of lighthearted humor or reproachful reproof – has become a cottage industry, springing up every January to chide the mountaintop follies of “the great and the good.” Skeptics often scoff that the lofty pronouncements of Davos Deepthink have become almost a caricature of elite self-importance, and there’ll surely be plenty of the customary sniping at the insularity of Davos Man and at the insouciance of the globalized jet set as its over-refined One Percent folkways become ever more detached from the struggles of the stagnating middle class and desperate working poor.

Despite such Davos-season misgivings, it’s worth recalling the value of such frequent, fact-based knowledge-exchange events and inclusive dialogues among business leaders and thought leaders. Some of the Davos Set may revel in after-hours excess – its Lucullan cocktail-party scene is legendary – yet the substantive centerpiece of such meetings remains a valuable venue for expert-level policy debates, allowing scholars to inject their ideas straight into the bloodstream of corporate strategy-setting. The global policy debate arguably needs more, not fewer, thought-provoking symposia where decision-makers can be swayed by the latest thinking of the world’s academic and social-sector experts. Judging by the fragmented response to the chronic economic downturn by the global policymaking class, every multilateral institution ought to host continuing consultations to help shape a coherent policy agenda.

Focusing on just one area where in-depth know-how can serve the needs of decision-makers: The World Bank Group has long been tailoring world-class knowledge to deliver local solutions to client countries about one of the trends singled out in this year's WEF list of long-term concerns – the worldwide shift from “predominantly rural to urban living.” The biggest mass migration in human history has now concentrated more than 50 percent of the world’s population in cities, leading this year’s Global Risks Report to assert that the risk of failed urban planning is among the top global concerns.

“Without doubt, urbanization has increased social well-being,” commented one WEF trend-watcher. “But when cities develop too rapidly, their vulnerability increases: pandemics; breakdowns of or attacks on power, water or transport systems; and the effects of climate change are all major threats.”

Yet consider, also, the potential opportunities within the process of managing that trend toward ever-more-intense urban concentration. What if the prospect of chaotic urbanization were able to inspire greater city-management creativity – so that urban ingenuity makes successful urbanization a means to surmount other looming dangers?

For an example of the can-do determination and trademark optimism of the development community – with the world’s urbanization trend as its focus – consider the upbeat tone that pervaded a conference last week at the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, analyzing “Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity.” With more than 850 participants in-person, and with viewers in 92 countries watching via livestream, the conference – co-sponsored by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Embarq, and the Transport and Information & Communications Technology (TICT) Global Practice of the World Bank Group – energized the world’s leading practitioners and scholars across the wide range of transportation-related, urban-focused, environment-conscious priorities.

(Thinking of the Preston gathering’s Davos-season timing and full-spectrum scope: It sometimes strikes me that – given the continuous procession of presidents, professors, poets and pundits at the Preston podium – there could be a tagline beneath Preston's entryway, suggesting that the Bank Group swirl of ideas feels like “Davos Every Day.”)

Amid its focus on building “smart cities” and strengthening urban sustainability, the annual Transforming Transportation conference took the “smart cities” concept beyond its customary focus on analyzing Big Data and deploying the latest technology-enabled metrics. By investing in “smart” urban design – and, above all, by putting people rather than automobiles at the center of city life – the scholars insisted that society can reclaim its urban destiny from the car-centric, carbon-intensive pattern that now chokes the livability of all too many cities.

The fast-forward series of “smart cities” speeches and seminars reinforced the agenda summarized by TICT Senior Director Pierre Guislain and WRI official Ani Dasgupta – formerly of the Bank Group and now the global director of WRI’s Ross Center on Sustainable Cities – in an Op-Ed commentary for Thomson Reuters: “We can either continue to build car-oriented cities that lock in unsustainable patterns, or we can scale up existing models for creating more inclusive, accessible and connected cities. Pursuing smarter urban mobility options can help growing cities leapfrog car-centric development and adopt strategies that boost inclusive economic growth and improve [the] quality of life.”

The Genie in a Bottle: How Bottled Biogas Can Contribute to Reducing Kenya’s Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Edward Mungai's picture

Growing up, I always dreaded to enter my grandmother’s kitchen in the village. She used firewood to cook: There was such a dark, thick smoke in the room that I couldn’t breathe or keep my eyes open. I really don’t know how my grandmother could spend hours and hours in there, every day, for so many years. And unfortunately, my grandmother is not an isolated case. More than 90 percent of Kenya’s population uses firewood, charcoal or kerosene for their daily cooking needs.

I always dreamed that clean sources of energy would make Kenyans more independent and less exposed to the serious health risks posed by fossil fuels. In rural areas, most women like my grandmother rely on firewood; its consumption not only depletes our forests but also emits hazardous smoke that causes indoor pollution and eventually respiratory illness. In areas where firewood is scarce, women have to use cow dung as fuel, an option possibly even worse in terms of pollution. Urban areas are affected too: The poor rely mostly on charcoal, another biomass that has the same negative effects and health risks of firewood.
Cleaner fuel options have already been developed but are often too expensive or too difficult to transport across the country to be adopted by a large part of the population, especially by the 40 percent of people at the base of the pyramid.

So what can be done? How can we make clean fuels more affordable and accessible?
I first heard about bottled biogas when I visited a "green" slaughterhouse in Kiserian, Kenya. I was really impressed: My dream of a cleaner, more affordable and easily accessible fuel was right there before my eyes.

The Keekonyoike Slaughterhouse found an innovative way to produce affordable biogas and package it for distribution all around the country. Using a special bio-digester, this business can turn blood and waste from a community-based Maasai slaughterhouse into biogas for cooking. To facilitate transport, the firm stores the fuel in recycled cylinders and used tires, reducing even further the environmental impact of the operation. Just to give me a better idea of the "green" potential of his business, the manager told me that this first biogas plant is expected to cut methane emissions by more than 360,000 kilograms per year (the equivalent of almost 2,000 passenger vehicles).
Indeed, "bottled" biogas (biogas compressed into a cylinder) has huge potential in Kenya: Farmers can directly produce it, recycling the waste from their farms; can use it for their cooking needs; and, thanks to the bottling process, can sell the excess on the local market, generating income while saving the environment.
The Genie in the Bottle

Keekonyokie is a company that began operations in 1982. It runs an abattoir that slaughters about 100 cows per day to meet the meat demand in Nairobi and its environs. In 2008, with the support from GTZ, the company constructed two 20-foot-deep biogas digesters that would help manage the abattoir waste, which was becoming a menace and a health hazard. Within a short time, the biogas being produced from the digesters was more than the company could absorb. The company managers started thinking of compressing and bottling the excess biogas, but they needed support to test the technical and commercial viability of their idea.

When infoDev’s Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC) opened its doors in October 2012, Keekonyokie was one of the first companies to be admitted.

On World Energy Day, Applauding an Energy Breakthrough: Innovation Through Successful 'Industrial Policy'

Christopher Colford's picture

At a moment when good economic news is in short supply, this week’s observance of World Energy Day provides a chance to celebrate some positive news – positive, at least, from the viewpoint of the world's developed economies, which have lately been struggling to recover from prolonged stagnation.

The recent plunge in global energy prices was a major factor informing a World Energy Day forum on “The Green Side of Energy Security” – convened in Washington on Wednesday by the European Union Delegation to the United States. The plummeting cost of energy, thanks in part to vast increases in oil and natural-gas supplies, is now poised to give advanced economies a much-needed additional stimulus. That's helping dispel some of the gloom that pervaded the economic forecasts at the recent Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. 

Moreover, the current global glut of oil and natural gas also highlights the success of a far-sighted innovation program that has helped strengthen productivity in the energy sector. The success of the 40-year-long U.S. program to create more effective methods of oil and natural-gas production has has transformed the global energy landscape. If those new production methods can be responsibly carried out, in compliance with strict environmental safeguards – and, granted, that’s a big “if” – then the economy will buy some extra time as it seeks to make the transition away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner, greener, more sustainable sources of energy.  

The initiative's technological breakthrough epitomizes the creativity that public-private cooperation can unleash when governments and industries, working together, patiently invest to strengthen productivity in specifically targeted industries and sectors.

The worldwide price of crude oil has fallen about 25 percent – from more than $110 a barrel in midsummer to about $80 a barrel this week – thanks to a combination of reduced demand (due to sluggish economic activity in many industrialized countries) and vastly increased oil and natural-gas production. Despite the geopolitical tensions now afflicting several major oil-producing regions, large new supplies of oil and natural gas are projected to continue arriving on the market, maintaining downward pressure on energy prices.

Much of the increased supply has its origin in North America – where “the revolution in American shale gas and ‘tight oil’ is real,” according to energy-policy scholar and historian Daniel Yergin. Writing in the Financial Times this week, Yergin noted that “U.S. crude-oil output is up almost 80 percent since 2008, supplying an extra 3.9 million barrels a day. . . . Canadian oil sands have added another 1 million barrels a day to North American supply over the same period.”

The energy revolution is poised to deliver a powerful, positive economic impact: As industries and consumers pay less for oil and natural gas, they’ll receive the equivalent of a tax cut – with Yergin estimating its benefit at about $160 billion a year, just for the U.S. economy. Such a stimulus, if it helps buoy economic activity in Europe as well, will boost economies that have been mired in what threatens to become long-term “secular stagnation.”

For motorists who are now paying less at the gasoline pump – and for home-heating-oil and natural-gas consumers who are awaiting their first chilly-season heating bills – the oil-price plunge and natural-gas glut may seem like an economic deus ex machina.

Step by step, consider how this process delivered today's energy abundance.

There: We actually said the fateful phrase: "industrial policy."

That always-somewhat-ambiguous term, "industrial policy," may have fallen out of political favor nowadays -- but there's no real reason to shrink from the idea, even though it's currently fashionable to use a euphemism like "innovation initiative" or "competitiveness strategy."

It's true, as skeptics suggest, that it's difficult to get industrial policy right. Public-private investment programs can be complex to design and sustain: In this case, it took about 40 years of experimentation and evolution to achieve the energy program's goals. Yet, when this initiative was launched in the energy-starved 1970s, various approaches to industrial policy were being vigorously pursued by many economies, large and small. (Yes, even the United States -- and even under conservative governments, as illustrated by the Ford Administration's pursuit of this program.) Put in its historical context, this example of 1970s-style industrial policy succeeded in delivering, at last, its long-promised payoff in productivity.

Piloted during the Ford Administration and ramped-up during the Carter Administration, this effort hailed from an era when repeated oil shocks were raising fears that the industrialized world would be threatened by oil-rich countries’ production cuts and price increases. Pragmatic R&D efforts on alternative oil-production methods were methodically pursued by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Bureau of Mines, drawing on crucial technological insights from the taxpayer-supported network of national research laboratories.

Once that initial government-funded research had laid the foundation for new technologies and techniques, the private sector stepped in and played its indispensable part. A public-private partnership through the Gas Research Institute helped perfect the new techniques, while pro-innovation tax policies granted favorable federal tax treatment for investors’ R&D commitment to the energy sector. A champion of the new technologies, George P. Mitchell, evangelized for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, even when skeptics scoffed. Researchers at the Breakthrough Institute assert: “Where Mitchell proved invaluable was [in] engaging the work of government researchers and piecing together different federally-developed technologies to develop a commercial product.” 

Mitchell’s determined experimentation with the new technologies built atop the crucial government investment in R&D. His entrepreneurial zeal was even more remarkable considering the opposition of many free-market absolutists on Capitol Hill, who disdained any type of public-private partnership that tolerated an active government role. Mitchell’s team gives credit where credit is due: “DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” according to Mitchell’s former vice president and lead geologist. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

Indeed, the impact of lower oil and natural-gas prices has been so dramatic that some energy-policy scholars, as became clear at this week’s European Union event, understandably worry that lower energy prices may lull governments and consumers into a false sense of security. Lower energy costs may remove a price-conscious spur to continued investment in cleaner, more sustainable alternative energy sources. That concern surely poses a genuine challenge for policymakers as they craft clean-energy and anti-climate-change strategies for the long term. Avoiding any backsliding on clean-energy investment will require sustained pro-innovation initiatives, and perhaps tax-policy adjustments, that promote long-term investment in cleaner energy sources. Disincentives on the use of fossil fuels is surely crucial to climate-smart strategies, speeding the transition toward renewable sources. The recent shale-gas revolution has bought some extra time for the economy to make that transition, and, as environmental advocates insist, that time must be used wisely. 

Looking back on the process that delivered today’s shale-gas and tight-oil abundance, the lesson is clear: A well-targeted industrial policy – or, if you’d prefer to use the modernized lingo, competitiveness strategy – inspired today’s revolution in energy policy. It’s the latest proof that competitiveness strategies, with the public sector and the private sector both playing constructive roles, can contribute to positive change.

So the next time a dogmatic defender of laissez-faire passivity tries to tell you that government should always keep its hands completely off the economy – or scoffs that all forms of competitiveness strategy are merely doomed attempts at “picking winners and losers” – remind that laissez-faire fatalist about the positive economic impact of government-and-industry partnerships.

Yes, it took decades of patient public-private teamwork to trigger this energy revolution. And, yes, as environmentalists wisely warn, the new technologies must be used under strict regulation that upholds the highest degree of environmental protection. Yet, accepting all the caveats, the economy now seems ready to reap a rich reward.

Whether you embrace the term "industrial policy" or use a euphemism like "competitiveness strategy," this example of mission-focused, government-organized, private-sector-driven, technology-led progress provides dollars-and-cents evidence that activist strategies, promoting research and investment in high-priority sectors of the economy, can deliver a dramatic payoff in productivity.


#TakeOn Job Creation and Economic Growth

Helping Green Business in the Caribbean

Herbert Samuel's picture

Increased hurricane activity and rising sea levels are well-known effects of climate change, and they prompt solemn head-shaking when we read about them in reports. But in the Caribbean they are part of a terrifying reality that is happening now: This reality was demonstrated again by recent flooding and landslides in the Eastern Caribbean that left 20 dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.