Idea #8

Think Globally, Act Locally… Think Globally Again

by Anna Mikulska

The “think globally, act locally” slogan has been an integral part of  climate action. It embodies the idea that instead of waiting for grand breakthroughs to “fix the world,” we should implement environmentally conscious solutions into everyday decisions and actions. Though on their own of negligible impact, in aggregate, these can have a globally transformative effect.

The idea is straightforward and seemingly easy to adopt. However, it also runs the risk of oversimplification if one assumes that the environmentally focused actions occur in a vacuum, i.e. when we don’t consider unintended consequences and trade-offs.

Take coal for example. Though its use in the developed world is on the decline, the level of demand for this fuel is expected to remain stable over the next two decades as the developing world picks up the slack (for a detailed discussion see here).  In fact, by depressing prices, decreases in the demand for coal in the developed world could even give additional impetus for coal use elsewhere—making it more competitive against other, cleaner energy sources like natural gas or renewables.

Similarly, an increase in electric vehicle (EV) use could send the prices of crude down, fueling (so to speak) the appetite for oil either in other countries or outside of the transportation sector, i.e. in the petrochemical industry. And what if the electricity that powers the EVs is generated on the basis of fossil fuels, especially coal? For example, China is an undisputed, global leader when it comes to available EV stock: 1,227,770 EVs compared to 762,060 in the U.S. and 205,350 in Japan. But the country also leads in terms of operating and planned coal capacity: 972,514 MW operating capacity compared to 261,037 in the U.S. and 198,600 MW planned capacity compared to India’s 93,958 MW. A new study by Buchal et al. gives us some insight here. The authors find that under current German electricity mix, when production and recycling of the batteries are taken into account, the electric Tesla Model 3 is responsible for ¼ to almost ½ more CO2 emissions than the diesel engine of Mercedes C220

Lastly, let’s take a look at the issue of reducing or even eliminating the use of plastics (especially single-use). The move could potentially serve many environmental goals that include, most prominently, the reduction of marine litter. Elimination of plastics could also seem consistent with climate action since plastic production requires fossil fuels as a feedstock. However, as pointed out in this piece by Rachel Meidl, plastics alternatives such as cotton, paper, cork, or wood are actually more energy intensive, which—similar to the EV example above—may become an issue when electricity generation is based on fossil fuels. These products also release methane and carbon during decomposition, which contrasts with plastics that actually sequester carbon and decompose very slowly.

The above examples point to several issues:

First, there is a prominent rift between the developed and developing world in terms of their environmental goals and preferences. The wealthy, developed countries are not experiencing serious growth in their energy demand given their slower economic and population growth. They can also afford to pay more for cleaner energy options. In contrast, high levels of economic development and population growth in regions such as China, India, or the remaining countries of South-East Asia imply a dramatic increase in the need for affordable energy sources that could lift millions from poverty.

Second, climate action does not take place in a vacuum. In an environment where not all participants put CO2 emissions and eliminating fossil fuels as their first objective, cuts in demand by some can boost the demand elsewhere. Thus, local action geared toward reducing CO2 emissions may bring negligible cumulative effects. In addition, citizens in developed countries who are willing to pay more for clean energy may paradoxically be subsidizing fossil fuel use in other countries if lower global demand for those fuels depresses prices.

Third, not all environmentally focused initiatives are compatible with climate action goals. Some environmental actions, for example, reducing use of single-use plastics by banning plastic straws and/or plastic bags and replacing them with alternatives may be highly effective in helping marine environment but could actually increase the level of CO2 emissions.

In this context, the simple idea of local action supporting global goals becomes much more nuanced and requires striking a difficult balance. This is especially important in a globalized economy where commodities such as oil, natural gas, and coal can move relatively easily to center(s) of demand and nullify effects of individual, local, or even country-level climate initiatives.

As such, these initiatives—if not evaluated in the light of their influence on the behavior of others (persons, countries, regions)—become just symbolic. Or, worse, they could have negative effects and obstruct the formulation of well-rounded policy solutions. To be sure, more holistic solutions are much more difficult and much slower to implement. They also do not bring the instant gratification of closing another coal-fired power plant, or buying an EV, or using a paper straw in a drink.  Instead, we may have to move slower as we look into ways in which to make clean energy a truly global goal, i.e. worthwhile to both the developed and developing world.

Hence, policy on the matter needs to consider a range of global implications and engage not only environmental science or technology but also other disciplines, including global, macro- and microeconomics, sociology, and political science. Solutions such as EVs or plastic alternatives need to be evaluated not only from the perspective of their immediate use but also from the life cycle perspective. This includes assessment of the environmental footprint of their production and disposal. Going further, evaluation of such policies should not only consider whether or not they have achieved their goals but what trade-offs did or would they require in the process. We need to think globally and—yes, act locally—but make sure that global implications of our actions are considered. Thus, one cannot overstate the role of well-designed and holistic policy solutions that can serve as organizing principles to concerted local and individual actions.

Anna Mikulska is a Senior fellow with the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and a Nonresident fellow with the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute.