Recession is the time to build a low-carbon future with the investment vital for economy and planet
- The Guardian,
- Thursday October 23 2008
There are two crucial lessons we must learn from the financial turbulence the world has been facing. First, this crisis has been 20 years in the making and shows very clearly that the longer risk is ignored the bigger will be the consequences; second, we shall face an extended period of recession in the rich countries and low growth for the world as a whole. Let us learn the lessons and take the opportunity of the coincidence of the crisis and the deepening awareness of the great danger of unmanaged climate change: now is the time to lay the foundations for a world of low-carbon growth.
High-carbon growth - business as usual - will by mid-century have taken greenhouse gas concentrations to a point where a major climate disaster is very likely. We risk a transformation of the planet so radical that it would involve huge population movements and widespread conflict. Put simply, high-carbon growth will choke off growth. To manage the climate, we must cut world emissions by at least 50% by 2050, as recognised by the G8 earlier this year. Given that rich countries' emissions are far above the world average, their cuts should be at least 80%, acknowledged in Europe and the UK, with the adoption of that target last week.
In recent days, Bank of England governor Mervyn King and Gordon Brown have indicated that Britain is heading into recession. We do not know how long it will last, but it is unlikely to be short. The relevant policies are being put in place to avoid plunging the UK further into crisis and to start constructing a more robust financial system. But as banks rebuild balance sheets and look for higher capital ratios they will have to restrict lending. Monetary policy alone, important though it is, is unlikely to pull us out of the recession quickly: fiscal policy to expand demand must play a role. But increased government spending should be focused not just on boosting short-term demand. We must promote growth that can be sustained.
The coming period of growth can be firmly based in the low-carbon infrastructure and investments that will not only be profitable, with the right policies, but also allow for a safer, cleaner and quieter economy and society. And if, as we must, we halt deforestation - the source of 20% of greenhouse gas emissions - at the same time we can also protect and enhance our biodiversity and water systems.
The International Energy Agency estimates that world energy infrastructure investments are likely to average about $1 trillion a year over the next 20 years. If the majority of this is low-carbon, and some of it is brought forward, it will be an outstanding source of investment demand. So too will be the investments for energy efficiency, many of which can be labour-intensive and are available immediately.
It is surely clear that a programme can be put together which both boosts demand in the short term and prepares for efficient, strong and sustainable growth in the medium term. It must be structured carefully with the public and private sectors working together. It will be the private sector that makes most of the investments, but the public sector must shape the incentives and the investment climate that allows the investment to take place. That will mean working with the EU and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen to sustain a price for carbon, by use of carbon trading and taxation. It means regulation, for instance, on car emissions to give clear signals that allow economies of scale and reduce uncertainty.
It is not, however, just a matter of the right motivation for the private sector and the appropriate scale and structure of public spending. The investment climate must be right, too. There could be a clear limit on time for planning decisions and a national energy strategy that shapes decisions. We should have a very open-minded attitude to technology and let the markets decide which to choose, without putting obstacles in the way that might arise from an antipathy to a particular technology. Demonstration of carbon capture and storage for coal and gas on a commercial scale in electricity generation should be a special priority, given the likely prevalence of coal in the future growth of many countries. Reform of the grid structure will be necessary to allow decentralised and local decisions for generation such as wind, solar and combined heat and power. And the energy strategy must factor in energy security and peak-load supply. With sound policies all this is possible, consistent with low-carbon technologies.
The next few years present a great opportunity to lay the foundations of a new form of growth that can transform our economies and societies. Let us grow out of this recession in a way that both reduces risks for our planet and sparks off a wave of new investment which will create a more secure, cleaner and more attractive economy for all of us. And in so doing, we shall demonstrate for all, particularly the developing world, that low-carbon growth is not only possible, but that it can also be a productive and efficient route to overcome world poverty.
• Lord Stern is IG Patel professor of economics and government at the LSE and leader of the Stern Review 2006 on the economics of climate change