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Nicholas Stern: We Need a Global Deal on Climate Change

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The world-renowned economist Lord Nicholas Stern made headlines in 2006 with a report for the UK government that surveyed the risks posed by climate change, the costs of addressing it, and the far greater costs of inaction. Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, called the Stern Review "the most important report on the future ever published by this government." In a new book, The Global Deal, Stern builds on his earlier work to offer a blueprint for a safer planet, laying out the specific steps that individuals, communities, companies, and nations need to take -- without delay -- to reduce emissions and head off the very worst consequences of catastrophic climate change. As the title suggests, the challenge demands international cooperation on a scale rarely, if ever before, achieved, but he's optimistic a global deal can be reached, if only because the stakes are so high, the alternative so grim, and the prize -- a secure planet on a sustainable path to prosperity -- so great. He spoke to me on the phone from Washington, D.C.

Q. In your book you write that the December 2009 meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen will be "the most important international gathering since World War II." Explain why it's so important.

A. Because the stakes are so high. We're looking ahead and asking ourselves the question, Do we want, 40, 50, 60 years from now, to be in a position where extended conflict for the world is unavoidable, because we would have so damaged the planet through global warming and climate change that whole populations will have to move on a huge scale? We have to look ahead and see that those dangers are actually bigger than the dangers we experienced then, after two world wars and the Great Depression, because getting out of it would be so difficult.

Q. And as you say, we start in a difficult place and we're following a dangerous path.

A. Yes, but a shared vision of this could pull us out of the recession in the short term, and lay the foundations for the great growth story of the next 20 or 30 years, which is low carbon technologies and energy efficiency. And having made the transition, we'll be in a low carbon growth path which would be much more attractive than the dirty high carbon growth that we have been following.

Q. For that to happen, the leaders gathered in Copenhagen have to strike a "global deal." What are the broad outlines of that deal?

A. The deal will have to be effective, that we make change on the scale required; efficient, in that we keep the cost down -- because there will be investment costs, and we mustn't pretend that there will not be; the question is how we keep those as low as possible -- and equitable, because there are so many different people involved in different circumstances, current and future. It's the poor countries of the world that get hit earliest and hardest, although of course we will all be profoundly damaged if we continue with business as usual.

Q. So in nuts-and-bolts terms, what needs to happen?

A. Basically, we have to see first where we're going as a world. And we have to get down to around 20 gigatons of CO2 equivalent -- that's CO2 plus the other greenhouse gases as a flow of emissions -- by 2050 if we're to have any chance of holding below 500 parts per million of the stock of concentration, which is essential to bring down the very big risks involved in climate change. We shouldn't be content with that, but that's the first thing that has to be agreed and understood. We're currently a little over 50 as a world, but by then there'll be nine billion of us.

Q. What is the rich countries' end of the deal?

A. The rich countries have got to cut carbon emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels.

Q. And the developing countries?

A. It's really the developing countries that should be setting out the terms of this agreement, because they're far more numerous than we are and less responsible for where we start. I don't think they will be willing to respond unless they see that kind of commitment [80 percent cut] from the rich world, because they're deeply angry and resentful, and understandably so, that it's the rich world that is responsible for perhaps two-thirds of the emissions on the planet, two-thirds of the concentrations that are in the atmosphere now. They need to set out credible climate change action plans, which means that their emissions will peak sometime around 2020, perhaps a bit earlier for China, a bit later for India. They'll say, "We will take on specific reduction paths provided in the next few years provided you, rich world, deliver on your promises in terms of delivery on your targets, sharing of technologies, and help with finance."

Q: Does the U.S. have a leadership role in this?

A. Yes, it does. The U.S. and China are the two biggest emitters. The U.S. has the biggest responsibility. It has been rapidly developing new technologies, which is very exciting. On the other hand, China's emissions are growing more strongly than any other major country's. And they will have major responsibility for growth of emissions in the next ten years or so. The sooner President Obama and President Hu get their hands around this jointly, come to an understanding of what the U.S. can do and what China can do, the faster we'll make progress. So their relationship in the next few months is of paramount importance in this whole story.

Q. You're visiting Washington right now. Are you encouraged by the conversations you've had?

Yes. I spoke to Steven Chu yesterday, the secretary of energy. I've spoken to Larry Summers, the main advisor on the economy in the White House and John Holdren, who's the chief scientist, and to Todd Stern, who's the chief negotiator. And their approach gives me much more grounds for optimism than under the previous administration. But of course you know the United States is a democratic country with particular structures in the House of Representatives and the Senate and it will be tremendously important for public discussion to move in a way that helps the House and Senate to get to emissions-reduction plans which could be part of the global deal. Actually, the Waxman-Markey is I think a very important step in that direction.

Q. So you'd say you're optimistic?

A. The two years [since the Stern Review came out] has been a period of greatly deepening understanding of the issues and of greatly deepening commitment at all levels in the US economy and government. That's encouraging. I don't want pretend that the arguments are over, because there's still a long and difficult way to go. But that movement has been encouraging and I think it's been reflected around the world. I've been working in India for 35 years, in China for 20, and the last two years in those two countries, the understanding and engagement on this issue has changed dramatically. Technology has moved more quickly then I anticipated. All those things make me feel that the possibility of the global deal is a very, very real one.

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