October 31, 2006
There is much talk, some of it vacuous, about a “tipping point” for the global climate. But the debate has certainly reached a tipping point. The Treasury has published Sir Nicholas Stern’s review when public concern is mounting and all three main political parties are scrambling to claim a green mantle.
Sir Nicholas acknowledges that no one can predict the consequences of climate change with complete certainty. There is no need, after all, to extrapolate into fantasy catastrophe, as far too many “forecasters” are wont to do. But Sir Nicholas believes that enough is now known to take a very sober and sobering view of the risks — and that these make action a necessity. His calculations are certainly compelling: he estimates that spending 1 per cent of GDP each year to tackle climate change would save potential costs of between 5 to 20 per cent of GDP by the end of the century.
The report is absolutely right to take a rigorous look at the potential costs of adaptation and mitigation. Too often this part of the analysis has been missing from the breathless depictions of climate change in the style of The Day after Tomorrow (in which an icy tidal wave engulfs New York). Global warming clearly represents an enormous challenge to human ingenuity, and to some wasteful human habits. But we need as much objectivity as possible about the risks.
International co-operation is clearly essential to combating this problem. But international co-operation cannot mean that all countries contribute equally. Some politicians still seek to argue that there is no point in Western nations taking steps to combat global warming while China, for example, is opening one new coal-fired power station every week. This is jingoistic nonsense. Developing countries such as India and China may be the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but this must be seen in context. The average US citizen still produces six times more carbon emissions than the average Chinese citizen, according to the World Resources Institute. It is incumbent on the West to take a lead.
Furthermore, countries that take a lead in reducing their energy use will undoubtedly benefit. While politicians continue to posture — some EU member states almost sank the EU Emissions Trading Scheme at birth, by doling out too many permits to pollute — many businesses are racing into the future. They are demanding more certainty with which to make investment decisions. James Smith, chairman of Shell UK, expressed the hope yesterday that the Stern review would prompt action to help to give UK companies first-mover advantage in the low-carbon economy of the future.
Some companies are way ahead of the politicians. While the Chancellor should be congratulated on commissioning this report, he might also think about how to make it easier for business to be green. The climate change levy, for example, is a windfall tax on energy, not a targeted tax on carbon. Business will find it difficult to respond to changes in the environment, if the environment is hostile to business.
The Stern review argues that the world does not need to choose between averting climate change and promoting growth and development. Sensible decisions, not emotional responses, are required and the planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.