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Countries Can Agree to More Global Action on Climate Change by 2015: Five Reasons (at least)

Jake Schmidt

Posted May 2, 2013 in Solving Global Warming

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Door to the plenary hall at Bonn Negotiations~May 2013.pngIt is critical that countries agree in 2015 to significantly reduce their climate pollution and secure a global agreement to address climate change. There are at least five reasons that should drive countries to agree to such action (as I discussed in an earlier post). But will countries take that action in 2015? While there is reason for cynicism, there are at least five reasons that countries CAN agree to more global action in 2015.

While not all of these are fully mature, with a little more push and focus there are signs that they could mature enough over the next two and half years. So here is my list of five reasons that countries can agree to more action at home and internationally (add your thoughts if you think I missed something):

1. The Cost of Inaction is Real and Getting Larger Everyday

According to one estimate, the cost of climate change and associated pollution in 2010 cost the world economy $1.2 trillion in economic output (a 1.7 percent hit on global economic output) and the lives of nearly 5 million people. While those may seem like only statistics there are real people and communities behind these numbers (they are the constituents of all the politicians that come to the climate negotiations). I don’t really see any country looking for ways to decrease their economic output at this stage, so why are they accepting such a hit on their economic output due to their inaction?

And while there used to be this perception that only the poor and most vulnerable would be impacted, the reality has become starkly different in many quarters of the world. Extreme weather has reared its ugly head in communities around the world, including in the developed countries where there was often a perception that they would largely be immune to the impacts of climate change. But as my colleagues pointed out, even in the U.S. the costs of extreme weather are large as last year’s drought is estimated to cost an estimated $60-100 billion and directly cost American taxpayers $16 billion in crop insurance. So you now have people in the developing and developed world both suffering from the impacts of climate change (this isn’t science anymore it is the reality on-the-ground).

Even if politicians are immune to climate science, distracted by other challenges, or stalled by domestic political debates, eventually they must face up to the fact that their citizens are being asked to pay for the damages largely wrought by their political decisions (their inaction is helping to feed the damages that are emerging). How much longer can politicians ignore these costs being borne by their citizens, companies, and budgets?

2. The Benefits of Action are Real and Getting Larger

Study after study has shown that acting on climate change will have an insignificant impact on the overall economic output of the world’s economy (e.g., the “Stern Review”) and that acting will reap very large benefits (e.g., in job creation or reduced pollution). While those could be dismissed as “merely studies”, it must now be obvious that those kinds of benefits of action are real and getting larger. There are real world people, jobs, and hard data that are becoming more difficult for politicians to ignore. Take a couple of examples.

Training workers to install solar panels at health clinics in Rwanda provides clean energy, creates jobs, and improves health service delivery.

Across the world, clean energy has becoming a major economic player with total new clean energy investments growing to five times what it was 8 years ago. So now when a politician looks at who would benefit from taking action on climate change all they have to do is go out into their community and talk to their companies and workers.

At the same time, it is pretty obvious to see that acting to address the pollution from fossil fuels (both carbon and air pollution) would produce real benefits to citizens around the world. After all, air pollution (which is largely caused by fossil fuel use) is causing the loss of 3.2 million lives per year around the world. Taking action on climate change that also reduces this pollution would literally save people’s lives.

There are now workers, companies, factories, and people in hospitals if any politician wants to see the benefits of acting aggressively on climate change (hint: just look at the faces of your citizens).

3. Clean Energy is Real, More Widely Available, and Competitive with Dirty Energy

In 2012, clean energy investment totaled $268.7 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, that would make it the 24th largest economy in the world if it was a country. And clean energy deployment is spreading to more countries as the CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently put it: “…investment is broadening rapidly, from established markets such as Europe, the U.S. and China, to new ones in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia-Oceania.”

At same time, the cost of clean energy has dropped significantly and become much more competitive with dirty energy. According to a new Deutsch Bank study, solar reached grid parity in India and Italy, with more countries projected to reach grid parity in 2014. A similar story can be told about wind, geothermal, and other clean energy (and don’t ignore energy efficiency which is the ultimate cost competitive source of energy as it saves money).

4. More Countries are Acting at Home (and the next step should be easier)

Since 2009 we’ve seen two important shifts. First, most countries aren’t just talking about what they might be able to do in the future to reduce emissions – they are beginning to act on those possible actions. Second, the list of countries with specific commitments has increased in recent years – it isn’t only the main players that have come forward.

Current actions aren’t sufficient, but they makes it easier for countries to do even more in the future (creating a positive reinforcement for more action). As countries implement changes on the ground they will likely find that: (a) it isn’t as painful as some people predicted (their economy won’t collapse); (b) there will be a lot of benefits of acting (e.g., job creation, reduced dependence on imported oil, and saved lives from reduced air pollution); and (c) it will become easier to take even greater action in the future (e.g., they’ll find additional win-win opportunities , tightening the policy over time will be easier, etc.). Typically the first step is the most difficult and once the ball gets rolling it becomes easier with each subsequent policy push.

5. Finance is Available (we just have to turn it in the right direction)

G20 Finance Ministers and Bank Governors

While raising $100 billion to invest in developing country climate action may seem like a big number, with a bit of perspective we can see that there is money that could be (re)directed towards climate action. Take a few examples.

The World Bank Group has invested over $18 billion in fossil fuel projects over the last five years. Think about what could be done if that (and more) from the World Bank Group was dedicated to climate action (instead of digging the hole deeper). And with countries subsidizing around $1 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies, some redirection towards climate action would sure go a long ways.

Last year, the top 200 companies invested $637 billion – they’ll invest almost $7 trillion over the next 10 years at that pace – in finding the next batch of fossil fuels. These investments are going into resources that can’t ever be burned if we address climate change. Just think what could be done if that $637 billion was being invested in solving climate change instead of going to the depths of the earth to extract that last bit of climate destruction.

There are lots of other examples that make you quickly realize that there are investments that could be (re)directed towards helping address climate change. With a little creativity and push I’m sure we can put in place a variety of mechanisms to deliver the needed investments in climate action.

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Photos: Door to plenary hall at April/May 2013 climate negotiations, courtesy of Jake Schmidt; Workers installing solar on a health clinic in Rwanda, courtesy of USAID_IMAGES under creative commons license; G20 Finance Ministers and Bank Governors April 19, 2013, courtesy of International Monetary Fund under creative commons license.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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