Almost 70 of the world’s sharpest minds on climate change got together in Washington last week to find ways to best support the exploding demand from countries for a low carbon future. Some of these great thinkers shared their thoughts with us on video .
With people in the room like Nicholas Stern, Professor of Economics from the London School of Economics, Christiana Figueres, Secretary General of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (by video from Bonn), Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change for the US Government, and Kandeh Yumkella, Director General of UN Energy , the discussion was rich and wide-ranging.
The scale of the risks from climate change is so large said Nick Stern that we need no less than a “new industrial revolution” to deal with it. With some climate scientists predicting that the world could be 5 degrees C warmer by the end of this century, we may be returning to a scenario not seen in the last 30 million years when the sea level was 30-40 metres higher than it is now, he said. “This redefines where we live, possibly billions of people will have to move, and this will inevitably lead to extended and severe conflict.”
"Emissions need to be cut from nearly 50 billion tonnes to below 20 billion tonnes by 2050, and if the world economy grows by a factor of three, emissions per unit of output need to be cut by a factor of eight to keep to a 2 degree C world…this has to be a new industrial revolution that would need to take place across all sectors and all economies.''
We also need a new narrative around climate change, he said, that not only brings home the extent of the risks but also tells the positive story that emerges through transformation.
That is a story of development done differently, in which adaptation to climate change, mitigation and development are interwoven. Under this second industrial revolution, “growth is cleaner, quieter, safer, more biodiverse, inclusive and altogether more attractive,” he said. “Tell that story and why this goal is worth pursuing. We then need good leaders with this ammunition.”
Development and climate change as two sides of the same coin
Everybody agreed that poverty and climate change are the two defining challenges of this century. The war on poverty cannot be won, speakers said, without addressing climate change and in fact there is the risk of reversing any gains on poverty if climate change is not addressed.
Figueres called for "climatizing’’ investment plans that are fundamental to development and growth. With Asia yet to construct much of its infrastructure for the next few decades, now is the time to incorporate climate change considerations into planning.
The World Bank’s Special Envoy for Climate Change Andrew Steer – who convened the meeting - agreed that the Bank has one goal: "We dream of a world free of poverty. Everything we do on climate change is because we know that the primary goal of poverty reduction would not be addressed without climate change action.’’
Reasons to be optimistic
Lord Stern, who later addressed a packed auditorium  at the World Bank with reflections since his 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change , said there is much to be hopeful about. Since 2006, the attitude of world leaders to the urgency of climate change has shifted dramatically from denial towards action. At the country, region, city and private sector levels, efforts to reduce emissions and grow differently are taking hold. One of the boldest of these comes from China through its latest 5-year plan which focuses on ambitious emission reduction targets through industrial transformation.
"Perhaps the most important quantitatively and in radicalness is China’s 5-year plan ....it’s of extraordinary importance where key drivers of change are consumption, clean growth and innovation, radically different from high carbon, high investment and externally- oriented manufacturing," said Lord Stern.
And even at the climate change negotiation level – which has been labelled as complex and slow-moving – countries are showing through their reporting that they can pursue low-carbon pathways and potentially reduce emissions much further.
Kandeh Yumkella, head of UN Energy , stressed the need to accelerate the pace of the new industrial revolution and emphasized the importance of ‘fairness and equity’. “We need to ensure that the new revolution is inclusive so that one third of humankind is not left behind.”
“This industrial revolution is moving in the direction of green technologies, green energy, cleaner technologies in various production processes but also in infrastructure, housing and transportation. Accelerating the pace will keep us below two degrees (of warming) – it will also reduce emissions and in effect promote growth and wealth creation in poorer countries.”
Power of example
Speakers identified the need to assemble in a systematic and analytical way, examples of low-emission development that had worked at country, sector, and firm level. This would provide the proof of concept and enhance the ability to learn from others. There is an urgent need for "lighthouse" projects in developing countries that will help dispel the myth that low emissions growth comes at the cost of development,’’ said Figueres.
Elizabeth Thompson, executive coordinator of next year’s Rio+20 Conference , reinforced this message later on the sidelines of the conference. “We need to strengthen the government-business-society interface and, particularly, get the business sector on board by helping them to recognize that low-emissions policy is profitable for them to invest in as well.”
So what can institutions like the World Bank do?
Joining the meeting in a moderated dialogue with US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Bank President Robert B. Zoellick agreed on the need for sound policy, the role of government interventions and a platform that would share this information. He pointed to energy efficiency as a win-win solution for all parties.
Emphasizing the importance of good data and sharing of information for effective decision making, Zoellick said, “You get the information out there, you create the incentives, then you get the profit motive going." Zoellick also underlined the importance of research and flexibility that allows for innovation and finding solutions. "You need a system that finds where innovation is taking place and then helps diffuse it," he said. He gave the example of Morocco Concentrated Solar Pl ant supported by the World Bank that would become the largest solar plant in the world once ready. It would demonstrate the feasibility of a technology that is yet to be tested on a large scale.