Monday, May 4, 2015

Another Stern Warning

Lord Stern is at it again. Former Chief Economist for the World Bank, an economic policy academic whose appointments have included Oxford and the London School of Economics, MIT, the École Polytechnique and the Collège de France, the People's University of China and the Indian Statistical Institute, recent president of the British Academy and current chair of Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change, Lord Stern made waves with his 2006 report, commissioned by the Blair government and widely regarded as the most significant call to arms on climate from within any major government. The Stern Review predicted economic consequences due to climate change equal to 5% per year of world GDP, and recommended investments of 2% of GDP--an unheard of number in the trillions--as a reasonable level of response to the problem.

Now Lord Stern, through the Grantham Institute, has published a report that examines the proposals offered up so far by the world's governments as they prepare for the December Paris Climate Conference. The numbers, Lord Stern tells us, are not so good. Using the formal filings of the EU and 7 other nations, along with the announced goals of China and the US, Stern's assessment is that the aggregated UNFCCC process will not yield policy changes in line with its goal to keep temperatures from rising no more than 2 degrees C. This is not particularly new news, but when the conclusions come from perhaps the leading authority in the world on the economics of climate policy, it's worth noticing.

Of more interest is the politics of Lord Stern's new report. As reported in today's Guardian, the point of the report is to get this bad news on the table now, well in advance of the official assessment the UNFCCC will itself make in November. As Stern's co-author Bob Ward notes, a similarly negative prognosis coming from the UN just before the conference could "cast a shadow" on it, whereas coming in May, this "summing," as the Brits say, could encourage the Paris conferees to create a "mechanism for raising ambition after the summit, while also encouraging countries to go further in their INDCs [i.e. individual national plans]." Prophylactic therapy, in other words, before the malady is full-blown.

In short, the Grantham's report is intended to drive the UNFCCC movement through and past the Paris moment, which will be equivocal at best, so that it retains and gains momentum among the world's nations for policy change. This in contrast to the Copenhagen conference in 2009, which was the occasion for widespread despair and little progress. So thank you, Lord Stern--we needed that, especially those of us who live in countries still mired in various stages of denial. No, the little bitsy changes that are happening will not spare us steep, intolerable temperature increases with horrendous climate consequences, but yes, if Paris becomes a launch pad for more dramatic policy initiatives, we might still make effective progress towards averting the worst.

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