Humanity's ‘enormous opportunity’

Solar panels, South Africa. Climate change and the falling price of renewable technologies provides infrastructure investment opportunities Solar panels, South Africa. Climate change and the falling price of renewable technologies provides infrastructure investment opportunities Danie Nel
03 Jun
Rapid global urbanisation and technological progress gives us the chance to ‘fundamentally transform’ our energy systems and urban infrastructure

Lord Nicholas Stern is not one to mince his words. The author of the 2006 report The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review believes we are at a ‘tipping point’ regarding action on climate change, and we find ourselves presented with what he calls an ‘enormous opportunity’ – which we can either ‘take, or lose’.

At an launch event this week for his new book Why are we waiting? The logic, urgency and promise of tackling climate change, Stern drew attention to three factors that he believes will be crucial in determining the outcome of the challenge of climate change. The first of these is the continually climbing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, especially the recent news that average global concentrations have surpassed 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time on record.

‘The world is going through quite extraordinary transformation,’ he said, addressing rural-to-urban migration, the second factor. ‘We will be moving from three and a half billion people in cities – 50 per cent of seven billion – to six and a half billion, adding three billion, by mid-century. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for infrastructure investment.’

His third factor is the rapidly changing landscape of renewable energy technologies, not least the plummeting price of solar panels, which he estimates has fallen to ten per cent of what it was a decade ago. ‘Who would have thought that most major car companies would be making hybrids?’ he continued. ‘It has been quite extraordinary. The fastest technological progress that the world has ever seen in digital materials and bio, gives us an enormous opportunity to invest in this next 20 or 30 years in a much greener, more efficient, less congested, less polluted economy.’

sternNicholas Stern, Baron Stern of Brentford (Image: World Economic Forum)

But, he warned, we have this one opportunity to make the necessary transition, before it becomes too expensive to do so. ‘Once you “lock in” your city structures or your energy systems, it’s very costly to change,’ he added. ‘We’ve got an enormous opportunity to move the investment to the right places. And there will be huge payoffs, not simply in the interests of climate change, but also in the very severe costs – human costs – of air pollution.’

The three key drivers Stern calls for to push this transformation are business, cities, and young people. He provides key examples of meaningful change the business sector is enacting, including pension fund AP4’s decision to decarbonise its portfolio, several energy companies requesting clear direction on setting a carbon price, and also the partnership between Unilever and Cargill to implement zero deforestation policies in the production of palm oil.

‘One of the positive things I’ve seen in the last year or two is the way in which the business community really has stepped up,’ he said. ‘It sees the risks to itself. It sees the importance to the monetary bottom line of acting responsibly. But, more fundamentally, it sees the need to act responsibly. And if you act responsibly in one dimension, on the whole people think you’ll act responsibly in other dimensions.’

He also mentioned the dramatic changes which took place in New York during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, as well as the C40 network of major cities taking action on climate change. ‘So you’re seeing that kind of movment, but not fast enough. The fact remains that pressure is not nearly enough yet to bring about the decisiveness, the pace, and the scale of the decisions that we need to make,’ he concluded.

newyorkNew York’s Citibikes, a model of new, green city living (Image: pisaphotography)

Overall, there was a more positive tone to the message than the one Stern delivered last week at the Hay festival, when he said that the global recession of 2007–08 and onwards was itself a missed opportunity for significant action on climate change.

‘The recession in many ways undermined action over the past five or six years,’ he said at that time. ‘The politicians’ attentions were elsewhere. Why it is impossible to think about the recession and climate change at the same time I don’t really know, but it seemed to be too much for them, when in fact this should have been the period when we were investing like mad. Interest rates on the floor, unemployed resources, so much technical progress showing you what’s possible – that was the moment we should have really gone for it and we didn’t. We did lose that opportunity.’

Stern is also one of many high profile authors who this week unveiled the Global Apollo Programme – which describes itself as a ‘major global research programme to make carbon-free baseload electricity less costly than electricity from coal, and to do it within ten years’.

Adopting the name of the 1960s Apollo space project, the programme states that similar levels of ambition are required to combat climate change, which they estimate would have cost $150billion in modern prices. The requirement for all countries joining the programme is to devote at least 0.02 per cent of their GDP to public expenditure on the Programme over ten years. It is likely to be discussed both at this month’s G7 meeting in Germany, and, ultimately, at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

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