Why do policies fail?

And how understanding this can help us kick-start the green transition

Before COVID-19, the mayoral candidate of New City had a vision: to replace car lanes with bicycle paths and tree-lined pedestrian boulevards. The plan aimed to encourage calmer walking and biking right at the core of New City. As COVID-19 happened in early 2020, the now mayor took a swift approach to implement the plan. Soft temporary barriers, plants and benches were placed, and former car lanes were repainted and repurposed.
A few months later, the results were disappointing. Post-lockdown meant an increase in traffic which resulted in increased congestion. The paint on the street lanes wore off and was soon overtaken by parked automobiles. The opposition criticised the government for fast-tracking the project without proper planning considerations. The project ended up being viewed as a personal project of the Mayor. Local ‘green’ champions rued the loss of momentum and opportunity of an initiative that, at first, held all the characteristics to improve the lives of citizens and reduce car emissions.

The fictitious story of ‘New City’ above can serve as a cautionary tale to any government aiming to deliver its own ‘green transition’ in the next years. Unfortunately, the signals from climate science could not be clearer: we don’t have the luxury of implementing trial and error policies and risk further delay in transforming our economies towards carbon neutrality. We have ten years to avoid worst-case scenarios and decisively transform the world economy – there is no margin for costly mistakes.

So, why even well-intentioned, well-designed policies fail? And what can we do about it?

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An unsustainable path

power station, energy, electricity

The sustained growth in global GDP undoubtedly reveals improvements achieved in financial comfort in many parts of the world. The global economy has grown from US$19,16 trillion in 1970 to US$85 trillion in 2019 (2010 constant prices) which equals more than a fourfold increase or double the rate of population growth[1]. Even though this metric presents clear limitations as far as generalised standards of living are concerned, less people live now in extreme poverty. Middle-income layers are on the rise in many countries. As a result of these improving conditions, global population more than doubled between 1970 and 2020 (3,7 to 7,8 billion, respectively).

Growth has come at a price though. Following the footsteps of Western countries’ trajectories, economic growth across the globe has brought new consumption habits, accompanied by increased pollution, loss of biodiversity and resource and environmental depletion.

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What would a Green Economy look like?

The short answer is we don’t  know.

Economic development has been traditionally viewed as the accumulation of wealth, usually in terms of owning things. It was generally accepted and even desired that this accumulation would be had at the expense of the natural world. Perhaps as a result of this world view, Economics lacks an integrative framework that incorporates our planetary limits. It seem strange though that, for example, the problem of scale or the consequences of a critical depletion of natural resources such as clean water and air, caused by continuous extraction and pollution, are never mentioned in the economics books. Any environmental restriction is viewed as external (and hence called an externality) and necessarily dealt exclusively by the government. Needless to say world governments’ action also have their limits, and some resources are simply not recoverable.

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