Global public goods, post-scarcity and technology

Andrew Ponton is a One Young World Ambassador from Tuvalu who is also a filmmaker and businessman. His latest short film, Islet, has screened at 10 film festivals in 2015 including the Hawaii International Film Festival. Andrew is currently developing a feature film to be made in 2018.

This article was originally published on G7G20 - the world's leading source of analysis, opinion and comment on the global agenda.

Tuvalu’s average height above sea level is 1.83 metres. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that my country will be uninhabitable by the end of this century. We are likely to experience more droughts and more flooding, and the salinisation of our soil will continue. Climate change is happening now. During high tide, seawater rises up from beneath the ground, forming puddles on our roads and driveways. This is particularly bad in February when seawater can reach knee-level height in some areas.

Located in the Central Pacific, Tuvalu is a low-lying coral atoll state. Our survival as a nation depends on the decisions made at COP21. We need world leaders to take responsibility to ensure that the right policies and ideas are implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But climate change is an incredibly complex problem to solve. It is not only an ecological issue; it has economic and political implications as well. Solving climate change will involve confronting entrenched interests, changing institutions and changing the way we behave. A legally binding agreement on climate change is an essential step towards combating climate change. With the right ideas, we can solve climate change.

I have been following COP21 updates online and was particularly pleased with ideas from Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador. He rightly calls out unlimited economic growth as both undesirable and impossible. He suggests having a treaty declaring technologies that mitigate climate change as global public goods, ensuring free access to everyone. I find this to be an interesting idea, but you can already imagine the problems it would cause for established institutions. Fossil-fuel-based energy companies would not be happy if free solar panels or wind turbines were handed to the public. Also, the loss of jobs in these established industries would put a lot of families under a lot of stress. This is an example of how strides towards combating climate change are often hampered by the realities of our economy. But it doesn’t always have to be this way.

COP21 should be a platform for world leaders to not just focus on reducing emissions but to reflect on our global economy as a whole. Climate change, like many other problems, stems from the incentives and real-world pressures of a scarcity-driven economy. Great thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller imagined a post-scarcity world where technology is used to free humanity from drudgery. Capitalism allowed merchants and businesspeople the possibility to achieve a lifestyle that was previously only afforded to royalty. I hope in this century, with the proper use of technology, we will see that possibility extend to everyone.

Renewable energy is an example of post-scarcity technology. In Iceland, six geothermal power stations are needed to power the entire country’s 330,000 citizens. Geothermal energy is renewable heat energy produced from and stored under the Earth’s surface. Amazingly, only 36 people are needed to run all six power stations. In other words, 0.0001% of the population provides energy to the entire country. If we could summon this type of technical efficiency to all other sectors, we might one day see 1% of the population work only a few hours a week to provide for everyone else.

This direction wasn’t possible for us in the past, but it could be a reality in the 21st century if we want it and work towards achieving it.