The world can still act in time to stave off the worst effects of climate change and enjoy the fruits of continued economic growth, as long as the global economy can be transformed within the next 15 years, a group of the world’s leading economists and political leaders argued on Tuesday.
Tackling climate change can be a boon to prosperity, rather than a brake, according to a study involving a roll-call of the globe’s biggest institutions, including the UN, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of rich countries, the IMF and the World Bank, and coauthored by Lord Stern, one of the world’s most influential voices on climate economics.
The report comes ahead of a UN-convened summit of world leaders on global warming this week at which David Cameron has pledged to lead calls for strong action.
Illustration: Tania Chou
“Technological advances — in areas as diverse as renewable energy, city design and food production — are making low-carbon growth possible at a scale that was simply not available when we wrote the Stern review eight years ago,” Stern said. “The examples have strengthened still further, from China to Ethiopia and Copenhagen to New York, showing that there is now an alternative to the old high-carbon development model. But there is still no substitute for leadership: governments must choose the low-carbon path. It won’t happen on its own.”
It is his most significant intervention in climate politics since the 2006 Stern review of the economics of climate change, which made the case that tackling climate change as a matter of urgency would be cheaper than attempting to deal with the effects of the problem decades in the future. That report changed the thinking on global warming and was a significant factor in the agreements forged in Copenhagen in 2009, by which developed and major developing countries for the first time set out joint measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The economic transformation proposed in the new report will improve the lives of billions, the authors argue, from people suffering from air pollution in crowded cities to farmers struggling with poor soils in developing countries. However, achieving this change will require strong political action to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions, while promoting alternatives such as renewable energy sources.
Stern gave the example of cities, which, if designed on public transport, can have more efficient economies — because people are not spending hours commuting and polluting, with its attendant effects on health — as well as better quality of life and lower carbon emissions.
British energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey said Britain has already seen benefits from focusing on clean development, and is committed to helping developing countries do the same.
He said: “It has required UK business and international investors to recognize the costs of failure and the benefits of change and it has been sustained by a strong, vocal and committed network of NGOs, pressure groups and activists who have been instrumental in sustaining political will and public acceptance.”
At the climate summit on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will convene heads of state and government from around the world to discuss climate change for the first time since the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which produced the first commitments from countries such as China and India to curb emissions, and marked the first time the US agreed to binding emissions targets.
Convening world leaders again is a risky strategy, but is seen by the UN as essential to lay the ground for a crunch meeting in Paris next year, at which governments will attempt to forge a new agreement that will cut global greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when current pledges run out. The EU has vowed to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, but is the only major developed country bloc to have laid out clear plans.
Last week’s report, the New Climate Economy, from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, says that although technological “fixes” to climate change — such as renewable energy sources, low-carbon fuels and better urban design — are growing fast, they are nowhere near enough to produce the transformation needed. As power stations, cities and transport networks are built, they are still being engineered on a high-carbon basis — coal-fired power plants, roads rather than public transport, slums without facilities rather than planned developments. Breaking that cycle requires a coordinated effort, from rich and poor countries, that prioritizes sustainability and penalizes high-carbon growth, for instance through a price on carbon.
“Economic growth and emissions reductions can be achieved together, the report clearly confirms ... Pricing CO2 is key. The heaven above us today is a waste dump for gases that harm our climate system. If emitting CO2 came at a reasonable price, this would stabilize investors’ expectations so they can push forward the innovation of climate-friendly technologies,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and an adviser to the report.
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