Why 2016 is going to be a crucial year for the G-20

Why 2016 is going to be a crucial year for the G-20

I was in Beijing last week. I was lucky because there was a breeze during my stay. Without it, the sky is gray throughout, and the smog makes you cough incessantly. 

Beijing’s population was around 10 million in the early 1990s, with only one ring road to connect the outskirts. The population doubled in the past 25 years, and now Beijing has six ring roads, with the 7th one to be built soon. It will be around 1000 kilometers, I was told. So China has changed. The iconic bicycles of the 1980s have disappeared, and the cars that replaced them have poisoned the air. Beijing might be the most egregious case, but China’s other urban areas aren’t very different. That is because China’s leaders made a tradeoff. They chose job creation and growth at the expense of urban sprawl. Why did it have to be that way?

The 20th century was the era of carbon-based growth and development. If you wanted jobs, you had to pollute. The connection lies in the technologies of the 20th century: Cheap combustion engines, coal-fired plants and the low cost of transporting cheap goods. If you weren’t willing to take advantage of these opportunities, you would pay the price of lower growth and fewer jobs. The choice the Chinese made is clear. But does that mean that the 195 countries in Paris, who recently struck a historic deal to lower carbon emissions, were agreeing on austerity? Not necessarily.

Because the 21st century is about to bring about alternative technologies, changing the way we do things on this planet. I am now amazed to see the impact of biotechnology, nanotechnology and information and communication technology (ICT) on production processes in nearly all sectors. A technological revolution is in the making, disrupting the firmly established link between growth and job creation on one hand, and rising carbon emissions on the other. The climate discussion is no longer going to be about tightening our belts, but rather about innovation, technology transfer and technology diffusion. We are switching to the offensive. 

That is why I like the Chinese G-20 priorities document. It shows that under Chinese leadership the G-20 now holds the potential to become more transformative. With the set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the historic Paris deal over climate change, the Chinese presidency could be instrumental in delinking growth from climate change. I see 2016 as a crucial year to increase the relevance of the G-20 in achieving economic, social and environmental sustainability. There is full consensus on the unsustainability of the current order of things, and the time for talk is over. Now is the time for action. The G-20 agenda now has the potential to heal the planet in the only way that truly touches all of us. We should embrace it.