Innovation and the Game of Politics (Update)
Updated: Nov 14, 2018
— How Brazil’s New President Will Affect the World’s Battle Against Climate Change
Brazilians went to the polls on 28 October to elect their new president. This election not only decided on the fate of Latin America’s largest economy, but also on the future of the global battle to counter climate change. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s next leader, is convinced that the policies of his predecessors are to blame for Brazil’s current state of economic, political, and social affairs, where the high crime rate and never-ending corruption scandals among the political elite are only the tip of the iceberg — all contributing to Brazilians beginning to question their democracy a whole. The former paratrooper suggest radical, right-wing solutions through strong government and violent law enforcement.
Among others, he condemns the previous’ governments environmental policies establishing a green energy mix based on renewables and protecting the Amazon from deforestation — the Earth’s largest tropical forest, wildlife reservoir, and ‘green lung’. Bolsonaro portrays both as a missed opportunity, which means that his presidency will affect not only Brazil, but due to its size, the entire globe.
Accordingly, one of Bolsonaro’s objectives to kick-start the slagging and recession suffering economy, particularly in the country’s remote regions, is to take advantage of the Amazon rainforest and ramp up deforestation. Such a measure could increase commodity exports (especially timber), could create land for agricultural use (particularly for soy beans and cattle ranching), and could stimulate knock-on effects related to machinery and logistics, among others.
The other measure the long-term congressman and now president-elect is planning to take relates to the country’s relatively recently detected oil wealth off the coasts of São Paulo and his home town, Rio de Janeiro. Instead of solely exporting fossil fuel derivates, Bolsonaro plans to use both the products themselves and the revenues of the state-owned petrochemical giant Petrobras to stimulate the domestic economy — replacing social policy programmes with infrastructure boosts.
So, why should we be worried? There are three problems: First, Brazil is already clearing vast amounts of rainforest every year, amounting to almost 8000km2 in 2016 — the equivalent of nearly 3000 football pitches per day. Increasing this output by just 10-20% — a modest assumption given Bolsonaro’s bold announcements — would create a two-fold effect: On one hand, it would immensely raise CO2 and nano particle emissions of the country due to the machinery used, the necessary transport, the final use of timber products, and the often associated wildfires to burn down forest residues. On the other hand, it would also sharply decrease the (remaining) forests ability to absorb CO2, irreversibly damaging the global ‘green lung’. This is not to mention the loss of bio-diversity, increasing erosion, and higher albedo of cleared landscapes.
Second, relying on fossil fuels for the energy hungry economy would thwart planned hydropower dams or renewable energy farm projects (solar and wind) put in place through innovative energy auctions. Projects like these take decades to be approved and realised. Hence, Bolsonaro’s measures would, consequently, put Brazil on a trajectory that, even if political powers change again, will enshrine fossil fuels as primary energy source for years to come.
Third, and arguably most importantly, an increase in deforestation and use of non-renewables endangers the innovation efforts undertaken by some of Brazil’s most distinguished research organisations and small niche-firms that have just stepped onto the field. The government supported R&D funds, e.g. through Brazil's development bank BNDES or the incubator SEBRAE have particularly in recent years ensured that mission-oriented innovation projects can receive the funding they need. Bolsonaro will cut these funding channels as they are no longer required.
Despite these outlooks, nearly 56% of the electorate believed in him and voted the candidate of the social-liberal party into office. We have observed similar political opportunism elsewhere, thwarting innovation efforts or promising trajectories, be in the the US under President Donald Trump, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement or, ironically, in Germany under ‘climate chancellor’ Angela Merkel, who although shutting down nuclear power plants, instead relies on coal to make up for the electricity deficit (see my other blogpost about this).
Political opportunism of this sort, hence, not only gets politicians elected, but also has an impact on how innovation trajectories and technologies develop in a country — and beyond. We have experienced times where such opportunism by politicians has helped us to get a man on the moon, causing spillover effects that we still benefit from today (e.g. many of the technologies used in smart phones today originate from NASA funded research projects). Yet, today more often than not, short-sighted political opportunism no longer pushes but instead threatens and stifles innovation — a development particularly dangerous in today’s world of highly interconnected and complex problems, such as climate change. The cost we will therefore have to pay later on — across borders.
Yet, precisely today a political push towards missions that tackle some of our greatest challenges would be necessary, instead of politicians free-riding and rising the ranks at the cost of innovation and future (sustainable) technologies. The increased complexity of ‘wicked problems’ that carry with them not only technological, but also social and economic dimensions and are rooted deeply within our interconnected societies, would benefit from political leaders taking centre stage to push solutions rather than to stifle them for their own benefit.
In fact, as the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer argues, we will not be able to tackle such ‘grand challenges’ without governments at centre stage. Many other (political) economists, like Mariana Mazzucato, ask for the state to play a key role not just in drafting missions leading to solutions, but also participating actively through investments and risk-taking, ultimately tilting the playing field.
The role of policy and, therefore, politicians is also key to another dimension of the wicked problems of today: The sheer multitude of actors in highly interlinked networks that define both the problem and the solution space, require a coordinator. Governance arrangements can provide such coordination through which different corners of the innovations network, public and private actors, research, investment, and technology experts, consumers, and more, can align themselves onto trajectories that deliver improvements to challenges rather than intensifying them — technologically, socially, and economically. This only works if politicians buy in, take on the lead, and push technologies forward.
Of course, we need to consider that the other side of the same coin might be far from problem free. “We vastly underestimate our ability to productively shape the scientific enterprise” argues David Guston, and continues to make a case against the predominant type of innovation policy — “an oxymoron” — in general. After all, predicting how a particular technology will impact society in general and a specific problem in particular remains difficult, if not impossible.
However, precisely because this is so challenging, our best bet is to have a stakeholder involved who is not only able and willing to take a risk in this process, but also has the power to guide the diffusion and implementation of socio-technical change across society: the state. The representatives of the state are politicians, and if they turn against innovation and return to technologies of the past, then we do not stand a chance. The clock is ticking, as the IPCC climate report has emphasised last month. Politicians need to come on board and use their leverage to turn the tide rather than intensifying it — even if that means to miss out on (some) political opportunities.
For Brazil this option is coming too late, for now. Bolsonaro will take office in January 2019 and guide Brazil’s politics for the four years to come (and possibly longer). It remains to be seen how much damage to Brazil’s green legacy he will do, influencing starkly the global efforts to battle climate change — and innovations that could help us to prevent the worst.
Andreas is a PhD candidate at the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Public Policy at University College London (UCL). His research is on innovation policy and the coordinating role of government regarding emerging technologies, among others in Brazil. He has conducted research in Brazil for a project at the University of Oxford and regularly tweets about his work - follow him @AndyPKopp. This post is part of a project on 'Responsible Science and Innovation' at UCL.