Recklessly slow or a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy? Time to decide


Executive Summary

The world is heading in a difficult and dangerous direction. A range of estimates based on current plans and intentions arrive at similar conclusions: at best, global emissions will plateau at around 50 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent per year over the coming decades, with a strong possibility they will go much higher. The scale of the risks from these levels of emissions is immense, with likely changes in climate way beyond the experience of modern civilisation.

The overall pace of change is recklessly slow. We are acting as if change is too difficult and costly and delay is not a problem. The rigidity of the processes under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the behaviour of participants also hinder progress. And the vested interests remain powerful.

Despite the slow overall pace of change, there are strong signs of activity and creativity across the world. And we have learned much over the past decade about the scale of the risks, the technologies required and the economics. Accelerating the pace of change towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy is both feasible and crucial; with the right incentives rapid transformative change is possible, even in capital-intensive sectors such as energy.

The alternative low-carbon, more resource-efficient path is likely to be full of discovery and attractive in terms of environment, security, health and community; far more attractive than high-carbon business-as-usual. As the transition accelerates, highcarbon, resource-intensive infrastructure and capital are likely to become obsolete/unsustainable, with associated risks of stranded assets. Any attempt at a highcarbon path will, before long, destroy itself through the hostile environment it creates.

There is a deep inequity in that rich countries grew wealthy on high-carbon growth and poor countries will be hit particularly hard by climate change. Recognition of that inequity must play a strong part in building international collaboration but must not be allowed to block progress; that would be the most inequitable of all outcomes.

The emissions arithmetic for a 2°C path is stark: stronger action will be required from developing countries, even if developed countries reduce their emissions to zero by 2030. The deep inequity and the arithmetic imply rich countries have a great responsibility to act radically themselves and to support developing countries’ transitions to low-carbon growth and development paths. Overcoming poverty and fostering sustainable growth and development support each other: if we fail on one, we fail on the other.

Equitable access to sustainable development is an attractive way of framing the issues that may help bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. Focus should be strong across each of equity, access and development, with countries coming together in a dynamic partnership where the choice of the sustainable development path is determined by the people of developing countries and that path is supported by rich countries (providing strong example and access to know-how, technology and finance).

Mattia Romani, James Rydge and Nicholas Stern