Building a low-carbon economy could be the 'growth story of the century': Expert

Stern described the evolution of power, transport, and construction technology as "extraordinary".


As thousands of elected government officials, CEOs and experts gather in San Francisco this week for the Global Climate Action Summit, economist Nicholas Stern called for big thinking and bold action to avoid the worst ravages of catastrophic global warming.

A report released earlier this month by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, which he co-chairs, concludes that strategic investment today across five sectors – energy, cities, food and land use, water and industry – would deliver trillions in benefits over the next 12 years, ranging from 700,000 fewer premature deaths from air pollution to more than 65 millions new low-carbon jobs.

A former chief economist of the World Bank, Stern was appointed by the British government to review the economics of climate change, resulting in the highly influential 2006 Stern Review.

Today, he chairs the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

How high are the stakes?

"Our civilisation has arisen in just the last 10,000 years, when temperatures varying by plus or minus one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit)."

"Continuing down the path we are on would see an increase – within a century or so – of 3 or 4ºC (5.4 ºF to 7.2 ºF), something Earth hasn’t known for three million years."

"Coastal areas would be under water, deserts will have expanded, hurricanes would become much more intense. Many parts of the world would become uninhabitable. Hundreds of millions would have to move, perhaps billions. The risk of serious conflict would be high."

What's changed in a decade?

"The science is even more worrying than we thought, and the cost of inaction is much bigger. At the same time, the cost of action – due to technological change – is far lower."

"Who would have thought then that renewables with storage would already be out-competing fossil fuels in the marketplace, even without a price on carbon?"

"And who would have thought that the heads of the major car companies would all be agreeing that the era of the internal combustion engine is coming to an end?"

"And there is so much more in the pipeline. This is the growth story of the 21st century. There is no long-run high carbon growth story."

 Building a low-carbon economy could be the growth story of the century: Expert

Nicholas Stern speaking at the United Nations climate Change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on Forest Day in 2009. Flickr

What's it going to take?

"We are not moving anywhere near fast enough. The Paris target is 'well below' 2ºC. But even at 1ºC, we are experiencing very severe effects. This will add to the pressure."

"Also, if we invest differently – it doesn’t have to cost all that much – we can have cities where we can move, breathe and be productive. The attraction of the different ways of living will start to appear."

"We are now seeing measures that will change the whole pattern of investment. Also, young people are looking to work in places that are more responsible. Paul Polman, the head of Unilever, has been strong on sustainability. His company gets 1.8 million job applications every year – they are getting the very best."

"We have to hope that these factors will support the kind of acceleration we need in these next two or three years."

Most worrying, encouraging?

The technological change we are seeing in power, in transport, in buildings, and cities is extraordinary. The thing I find most worrying is the strength of vested interests who oppose climate action. They are weakening, and weakening quickly, but they are still a worry.

Key actions for government?

Clear and strong targets (for emissions reductions), so investors in each country know what the overall story is going to be in 20 or 30 years, is crucial. So is strong carbon pricing.

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