Low-carbon growth the best option
By Nicholas Stern
THE United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Copenhagen in December, should provide the climax to two years of international negotiations over a new global treaty aimed at addressing the causes and consequences of greenhouse gas emissions.
A global deal on climate change is urgently needed. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached 435 parts per million (ppm), compared with about 280 ppm before industrialisation in the 19th century.
If we continue with business-as-usual emissions from activities such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, concentrations could reach 750 ppm by the end of the century. Should that happen, the probable rise in global average temperature relative to pre-industrial times will be 5 deg C or more.
It has been more than 30 million years since the earth's temperature was that high. The human species, which has been around for no more than 200,000 years, would have to deal with a more hostile physical environment than it has ever experienced. Floods and droughts would become more intense and global sea levels would be several metres higher. Some parts of the world would be under water; other would become deserts.
Developing countries recognise and are angered by the inequity of the current situation. Current greenhouse gas levels are largely due to industrialisation in the developed world. Yet developing countries are the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. At the same time, emissions cannot be reduced at the extent required without the central contribution of the developing world.
Climate change and poverty, the two defining challenges of this century, must be tackled together. If we fail on one, we will fail on the other. The task facing the world is to meet the environment's 'carbon constraints' while creating the growth necessary to raise living standards for the poor.
To avoid the severe risks that would result from a rise in global average temperature of more than 2 deg C, we must bring atmospheric concentrations to below 450 ppm. This will require a cut in annual global emissions from about 50 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent today to below 35 gigatonnes in 2030, and less than 20 gigatonnes by 2050.
[And so the question is, "how?" That's a 30% cut by 2030 and a 60% cut by 2050 while the population rises by almost 50%. On a per capita basis, it would mean a cut of 80% - 90% of our carbon footprint. So, you can only use your aircon 10% of the time you current use. Drive just 10% of the distance you currently drive, and do laundry one-tenth of the time you currently do.
Today, per-capita annual emissions in the European Union are 12 tonnes, and 23.6 tonnes in the United States, compared to six tonnes for China and 1.7 tonnes for India. As the world's population will be about nine billion in 2050, annual per-capita emissions must be reduced to approximately two tonnes of CO2-equivalent, on average, if the global annual total is to be less than 20 gigatonnes.
[If we use the EU as the benchmark and say that the US can easily reach the EU carbon footprint by 2030, we would still be off by about 10 tonnes per year. The Indians are already hitting the target, but the proposal means zero growth for the next 40 years. The Chinese has exceeded by 200%. Of course the proposal is not zero growth, but zero carbon growth. Again, how?]
Developing countries need substantial help and support from rich nations in order to implement their plans for low-carbon economic growth, and to adapt to the effects of climate change that are now inevitable over the next few decades. Developed countries should also provide strong support for measures to halt deforestation in developing countries.
Based on recent estimates of the developing world's extra requests as a result of climate change, rich countries should be providing annual financial support - in addition to existing foreign aid commitments - of about US$100 billion (S$140 billion) for adaptation and US$100 billion for mitigation by the early 2020s. Some of the latter can come through the carbon market.
Rich countries must also demonstrate that low-carbon growth is possible by investing in new technologies, which should be shared with developing countries to boost their mitigation efforts.
We are already seeing extraordinary innovation by the private sector. Investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies could also pull the global economy out of its economic slowdown over the next couple of years. More importantly, in driving the transition to low-carbon growth, these technologies could create the most dynamic and innovative period in economic history, surpassing that of the introduction of railways, electricity grids, or the Internet.
There is no real alternative. High-carbon growth is doomed. Low-carbon growth will be more energy-secure, cleaner, quieter, safer and more bio-diverse.
[For small states like Singapore, hydro-electric power is out of the question. So is geo-thermal temperature. Solar energy is abundant, but current efficiency is laughable. There is no foreseeable way solar energy would contribute significantly to our power grid. Same for wind energy.]
We should learn from the financial crisis that if risks are ignored, the eventual consequences are inevitably worse. If we do not start to combat the flow of greenhouse gas emissions now, the stock in the atmosphere will grow, making future action more difficult and costly. Other public expenditure can be postponed, but delaying climate change measures is a high-risk, high-cost option.
Climate change poses a profound threat to our economic future, while low-carbon growth promises decades of increased prosperity. The choice in Copenhagen will be stark, and the stakes could not be higher. We know what we must do, and we can do it.
[Again, the question is not what we must do, but how can we do it. There have been no feasible proposal.]
The writer is chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and professor of economics and government at the London School of Economics, and a member of the British House of Lords.