Nicholas Stern: ever the optimist, tells London audience about his latest climate change economics

26 Aug 2015   lucyejwoods

Talking to a packed room during a public lecture at the London School of Economics (LSE), world-renowned professor of economics, Nicholas Stern told the audience to be optimistic on climate change.

Since Stern’s groundbreaking climate change economics report for Gordon Brown’s government in 2006, emissions are rising quicker than ever predicted.

In particular, Stern updated the crowd that methane emissions (which has a warming effect 25 times greater than carbon dioxide) are rising, and on top, emissions are exacerbated by the melting of the world’s permafrost: frozen soil covering 24% of the northern hemisphere – releasing tons more frozen emissions, into the atmosphere.

But Stern, ever the optimist was quick to point out that innovation and technology has also sped past at unpredictable break neck speeds, quoting the remarkable decline in the price solar: according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, IRENA, photovoltaic solar prices fell by a staggering 80% between 2008 and 2014 alone, and continue to plunge.

Stern also said the cost of not acting on climate change is higher than ever, with air pollution resulting in 1 million deaths in China last year, and 29,000 UK deaths. (17,000 lives were lost from road accidents).

From water absence and extreme events, the climate is currently “right outside the scale of what we are used to” said Stern, with a high probability earth will see a rise of 5C – 3C above the recommended limit.

The current course of climate change will result in mass migration across the globe, with possibly 100 million people moving, “possibly a billion”, said Stern, resulting in a “complete rewriting of how we live” and a “severe strain of conflict”.

“The stakes for which we are playing are immense”.

The world-renowned economist put the troubling acceleration of climate change down to “allowing someone to do something which is very expensive for nothing”.

Stern was referring to the unaccounted ecological damage from industrialization, that left un-billed in global markets is a “market failure”.

“Adjust demand and supply through policies and incentives”, recommended Stern.

Stern then championed research and development, adding that it too has not been fully accounted for in global markets: “ideas are a public good, there is a benefit for others that markets do not compensate for.”

With this in mind, Stern said government frameworks for new grids and networks is required, and a carbon price to give investors and entrepreneurs long-term confidence.

Investment of $90 trillion over the next 15 years “will happen anyway, doing well costs only a few trillion more” said Stern. He estimated that $10 billion, or 0.02% of the world’s GDP is required for solar energy and storage, adding that the possibilities are “enormously attractive.”

Climate change adaption will be a “story of extraordinary change”, he said, and to “get cheerful as this is a new energy industrial revolution.”

When challenged by an audience member on how Stern could stay so incredibly optimistic in light of accumulating emissions, Stern calmly replied that “recreating forests, and carbon capture in soil can be used”.

The knighted economist also told the audience to be vigilant in correcting the belief that: “Coal is cheap…don’t let them finish that sentence! It is not 50 dollars a ton, it is at least 200 dollars a ton!”

“It is immoral to not act and just continue as we are” said Stern, concluding that not acting on climate change is “discrimination by date of birth”.

Referring to The Guardian’s campaign ‘Keep it in the ground’, Stern said the idea is “dead right”.

(‘Keep it in the ground’ is based on environmental group, 350.org’s calculation there is five times the amount of carbon set to be dug up that cannot be used without triggering irreversible climate change.)

“This only happens once in history. It’s a decision that will shape the rest of the century, a story of growth and transition and coming together” said Stern, “ it’s an exciting time to be alive – but also worrying.”

Talking about why actions in line with climate science have not yet been taken, Stern said there were many reasons. One being “We were diverted by the recession – when this should have been the moment to invest”. As well as the “short term cycles” of politics, and even the temperature of the room effecting people’s reactions to climate change news.

During questions, Stern relayed the importance of civil movements, using Mothers Against Drink Driving, as an example of how small groups can change public attitudes and behavior quickly.

In a Ted Talk last year, Stern also gave the example of smog in London in the 1950s, and how “good decisions can bring quick results”.

During the public lecture, Stern also tackled the difficult subjects of geoengineering and dietary changes. As animal agriculture accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, Stern recommended small changes such as eating less meat, and swapping higher emission intensive meats, such as beef, for less intensive, such as poultry.

On geoengineering Stern was very wary. It’s “very risky, and dealing with things we don’t yet understand or know about, we still need research, but we should look for other ways.”

On the upcoming UN climate talks, Stern said: “If we fail on climate change, we fail on poverty”.

Stern is the Chair of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE and author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and was promoting his latest book: “Why are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change”.


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