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May 27 — International commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions remain “far too weak,” and a successful global agreement on climate change must include mechanisms to rapidly scale up action to address the problem, a prominent British economist said.
Nicholas Stern, president of the British Academy and author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, said May 25 a successful agreement in year-end talks in Paris would maintain the goal of limiting global temperature increases to under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) while recognizing that current international commitments make hitting that goal unlikely.
A successful agreement in Paris also would recognize the need for the world to be “net zero” on carbon emissions by the end of this century, he said. Stern called such a goal “a big ask” but “perfectly possible” if major emitters like the U.S., China and Germany are forceful advocates in the negotiations.
Major problems going into the United Nations climate negotiations include weak pledges to reduce greenhouse gases, Stern said. He predicted India and countries in Africa would be wary of an agreement without significant financial support from wealthy nations toward climate change reduction methods.
“I’m very optimistic about what we can do,” Stern said. “What I really worry about is whether we’ll be bright enough and collaborative enough to do it.”
Bloomberg BNA obtained audio May 27 of Stern’s remarks at the annual Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
The U.S. itself has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent over the next decade in a formal pledge ahead of the December climate summit.
World leaders missed a huge opportunity to ramp up their efforts to address climate change during the economic recession, Stern said. Politicians now appear to be more engaged on the issue, although Stern questioned whether they had an adequate sense of urgency.
“The recession in many ways undermined action, I think, over the last five or six years,” Stern said. “Why it’s impossible to think about the recession and climate change at the same time, I really don’t know, but it seemed to be too much for them…. That’s the moment when we should have really gone for it, and we didn’t. We can still, and it’s picking up a bit now, but we did lose that opportunity.”
The British economist and academic sees reason for optimism in the rapid evolution of technologies like solar power and forecasts “an enormous opportunity” to shift to more sustainable energy infrastructure as the world’s population grows increasingly urban this century.
Maintaining the status quo, however, would be disastrous, Stern said. Temperature gains of 3.5 degrees Celsius to 4 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) are likely, and those increases would pose “immense risks” to global economics and stability, he said.
One country that understands the risks of climate change and has shifted its economy in “quite extraordinary” ways is China, Stern said. China has begun reducing its coal use—it may peak its carbon emissions by 2025 rather than the 2030 goal given last year—due to the “immense” human health costs associated with its use and the nation’s desire to secure a market edge on environmental technologies over the rest of the world, Stern said.
Stern called President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s joint announcement in November 2014 on climate change “very important” and a “very powerful signal.” Obama announced the U.S. would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, while Xi pledged that China's emissions would peak by 2030 or earlier.
Stern said the engagement of those two leaders, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was reason for optimism going into Paris.
“You have key players who are thinking about their legacy, and all three of them take this issue very seriously,” Stern said. Several nations known to be less committed to action on climate change, such as Russia and Australia, are unlikely to scuttle the international talks, Stern said.
Australia is not a “big deal” internationally and will likely follow the lead of its biggest trading partner, China, while Russia seems reluctant “to get in the way” and devote its attention to other international matters.
Many of the developing nations, especially India, must look to other energy sources beyond coal as they seek to grow their economies, Stern said.
“Coal is just terrible,” Stern said. “The fixation on coal in a number of countries, including India, is a real problem.”
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