Nicholas Stern: The state of the climate — and what we might do about it

Speaker

Lord Nicholas Stern studies the economics of climate change. He is a co-author of the position paper presented to the UN’s 2014 Climate Summit, called “The New Climate Economy.”, and author of “The Stern Review” on behalf of the British government.

Summary

25 years ago, Everyone in Beijing travelled by bicycle. It was a safe and easy way to get around. Nowadays the roads are clogged by vehicles and the air too polluted to breathe. Over that time Beijing’s population has doubled and China’s reliance on fossil fuels has increased dramatically. China now burns half of the world’s coal, and now recognises that its energy use is unsustainable.

In the next few decades, environmental pressure will increase more due to structural economic changes:  70% of people will live in cities by 2050, energy use will increase by 40% over the next 20 years, and pressure will increase on water, land and forest resources. If this change is managed poorly, there are immense risks to our quality of life and our climate. If greenhouse gases continue to increase at the rates projected, we will see temperatures over the next century which the earth hasn’t seen in tens of millions of years.

The economic changes will happen regardless, but people need to make a decision to deal with climate change. In the area of cities, we need to

  • build new cities in a compact way – to reduce travel time
  • for existing cities, we need to work out how to move people around efficiently.

As an example of improving a city – in 1952 London’s smog killed 4,000 people and reduced vehicle visibility. By regulating coal, smog decreased quickly. A recent congestion charge gave quick results – decreasing car usage in the CBD.

In energy – over the last 25 yrs, energy use has increased by 50% and 80% of the energy produced now comes from fossil fuels. Energy consumption is expected to increase by 40% again over the next 20 years, and we need to make sure it is used efficiently and produced cleanly. California is an example where this has been done well – renewables will contribute 33% of energy consumption within a few years, and greenhouse emissions will reduce back to 1990 levels (economic output has doubled over this time). Similarly, India is being proactive – aiming to install solar electricity to 400 million homes which currently have no electricity. Good decisions are giving quick results around the world.

Regarding forests: they hold valuable species, keep water in the soil and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But forests are being destroyed – over the past decade we’ve lost forested land the size of Portugal. However, in Brazil the rate of deforestation has reduced 70% by working with communities and enforcing the law more effectively. Ethiopia is also setting ambitious goals – it aims to be a middle economic power in 15 years and to be carbon neutral. Ethiopia is committed to doing this, and Nicholas believes it is a plausible goal.

Across the world, we do understand how to make change effectively. Technology is also moving quickly – better insulation, batteries, electric cars, smart houses. However the world as a whole is not moving quickly – we are not cutting emissions as we should, the depth of understanding in climate change and commitment to change is not there. If changes are managed effectively, the next 100 years will be the best humanity has experienced. If not, the coming century will be humanity’s worst.

My Thoughts

The talk was a call to action. Unfortunately, I’m not sure who the call is for – there wasn’t really a clear action we can take afterwards. It ended with an admonishment of the current political leadership, rather than a focus for the viewers.

Nonetheless, an interesting list of targets. I am particularly curious to see Ethiopia and India’s progress to advance economically and environmentally at the same time. It seems developing countries must tread this line carefully nowadays – and although it is possible it has not been achieved in the past by other countries (US, Western Europe, China all leapt forward economically before significant environmental goals).

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