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14 April 2024

Decarbonising global economy is cheaper

By Jonathan Porritt

Staying optimistic in the teeth of worsening news about the rapid onset of climate change is not easy. Especially when our politicians still seem paralysed by the complexity of getting to grips with it – as evidenced by the failure of governments at the UN Conference in Bali just before Christmas to do anything other than commit themselves to another couple of years of talking.

You would have thought the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report would have jolted them out of this life-threatening inertia. It couldn’t have been clearer: we have to restrict average temperature increases to below 2C by the end of the century, and that means reducing emissions of CO2 by at least 60 per cent by 2050. And the longer we delay, the more painful it will be.

Every government in the world signed up to that consensus, some of them knowing in their hearts that the new evidence of accelerating climate change is actually a great deal more worrying – but this was all that was “politically feasible” given the continuing intransigence of the Bush Administration.

The debate about the science is therefore largely over, although the media (particularly in the US) still love to proclaim the views of the handful of serious dissenting scientists, ensuring that the general public remains far more confused than it should really be. Dealing with climate change is in full flow, powerfully influenced by the report Sir Nicholas Stern produced for the UK Treasury 15 months ago.

This too was crystal clear: there will be a cost associated with decarbonising the global economy (which could be as much as one per cent of GDP), but that will be a great deal less than the cost associated with letting climate change rip – which could be anywhere between five per cent and 20 per cent of GDP. Yet this has still not provided the magic ingredient for governments to seriously get on with things.

So there is every reason to be pessimistic. Yet you have to set against that the fact that there is now (almost) universal consensus as to what is happening, and even in the US the politics have shifted dramatically (all of the Presidential candidates are now backing some kind of cap and trade system for the US), that electors in Australia threw out former Prime Minister, John Howard partly because he was such a red neck on climate change, that China has started to take climate change extremely seriously (unfortunately, the same can’t be said of India), that the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme is beginning to work, and that public opinion the world over (even in the US) now expects politicians to be setting about things a great deal more purposefully than is currently the case.

The scientists tell us we have a small window of time to lay the foundations for a very low-carbon global economy – maybe 10-15 years.

  - Jonathan Porritt is Programme Director of Forum for the Future,
    the UK sustainable development charity, and was appointed by
    the Government as chair of the UK Sustainable Development