This shouldn’t be difficult

The 21st Conference of the Parties — the unromantic name for the summit of world leaders aiming to agree how to combat global climate change — starts today and will go on for 12 days. As you prepare to follow what will no doubt be exasperating negotiations, but will hopefully result in greater and more harmonious commitments than in Copenhagen six years ago, you would do well to remind yourself what is at stake. A few weeks ago we covered a new paper showing how horrendous the economic cost of climate change could be — a quarter wiped off the global economy by the year 2100, with the burden allocated in an outrageously inequitable fashion: the richest nations stand to be made even richer by climate change, with the world’s poorest left to pay the price.

Also read Curt Stager’s New York Times essay Tales of a Warmer Planet, which goes past the numbers to offer concrete depictions of what a much warmer world would look like, taking his cues from past geological periods of planetary warming. Would it be a mild version akin to the last interglacial age (with the “Sahara lush and watery”), or would it be more like the “extreme hothouse” of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 56m years ago (when “Antarctica was covered in beech forests”)?

As for what to expect — and what to demand — from the Paris summit, Amar Bhattacharya and Nicholas Stern offer a concise guide. (This is part of a whole collection of useful briefings from the Brookings Institutions.) They write: “The Paris summit must not be regarded as a one-off opportunity to fix targets. Instead, it must be the first step of many, based on regular reviews of how close we are to meeting the goal of avoiding dangerous global warming. More broadly, the Paris summit is a chance to build an understanding not only of the threats and risks from unmanaged climate change but also the opportunities that lie in the low-carbon transition — including the path it paves to fight global poverty.”

That second, broader, aim is more significant than many may think. For those opportunities are still missed in too many corners. That includes poorer countries such as India, for whom my FT colleagues on the comment desk must have had a soft spot this week: both Arvind Subramanian, New Delhi’s chief economic adviser, and Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, have published op-eds in the pink pages in the run-up to Paris. They are clearly on a joint campaign. Modi decries the “lifestyles” of rich countries which must be “reviewed” or “the best political and technical measures will be ineffective”. Subramanian lobs a rhetorical grenade into the climate debate by accusing rich countries of a carbon imperialism which could “spell disaster” for poor countries. The aim of both seem to be to emphasise that while India will contribute, it and other poor countries should not be denied the path to economic development through use of fossil energy that today’s rich countries themselves took.

Subramanian argues that India needs cheap energy, writing: “India is committed to an ambitious renewables programme, ramping up renewables capacity from 35 gigawatts today to 175 gigawatts by 2022. But as Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, has pointed out, the prices of properly costed renewables are not competitive with coal today, and they are not likely to be any time soon. It is wishful thinking to imagine that renewables can replace coal in the foreseeable future.”

With apologies to the billionaire software entrepreneur, this is not quite what the scientists say. A new report from a team of MIT researchers led by professor Jessika Trancik documents the extraordinary fall in renewable electricity generation costs and the good reason to expect them to continue to fall. “Based on future technology development scenarios, past trends and technology cost floors, we estimate these commitments for renewables expansion could achieve a cost reduction of up to 50% for solar (PV) and up to 25% for wind. For both technologies this implies a negative cost of carbon abatement relative to coal.”

(That is on the side of electricity generation alone: now imagine how cheap — or outright profitable — carbon abatement could become once you throw in potential efficiency improvements in energy consumption and distribution as well.)

The White House has listened. So should India (whose own promises are not quite as strong as they seem, according to Charles Frank of Brookings, but better than China’s). And so should Pope Francis, whose otherwise welcome encyclical on the environment was unduly sceptical of technology.

India, in particular, seems to be missing a trick with its antagonistic rhetoric. While it’s the world’s third largest carbon-emitting nation, that has a lot to do with it being one of the world’s most populous. On a per capita basis, India emits far, far less than the US and China, and may indeed emit less than the per capita level compatible (if everyone else did too, which they won’t on current trends) with meeting the elusive goal of keeping global temperatures within 2 degrees of pre-industrial ones. So it should have everything to gain from pushing for rules based on equal allowances of emissions per capita, within an internationally tradeable quota system.

Developing countries embracing this sort of solution could have some powerful effects. If anything like it was implemented, it would reward those inventing new low-carbon technologies and, critically, those applying them. (A country like India may find that in one respect at least it is better to get rich now than 200 years ago: energy, when properly accounting for the vastly greater energy efficiency of modern economic production, is probably much cheaper, especially in its cleanest forms.) It could by itself address the thorny issue of climate-related aid: such a quota system would channel funds from rich countries to poor ones and could easily top the $100bn a year the former have pledged. It might help bridge the gap between infrastructure needs around the world and the funds ready but somehow unable to invest in them.

Above all, one might hope that Bhattacharya and Stern’s point could emerge victorious: “Portraying economic growth and development as being in conflict with climate action is a misunderstanding of the opportunities presented by the low-carbon transition and creates an ‘artificial horse race’ between them.” Overcome that misunderstanding, and you overcome the greatest cause of political paralysis.

Numbers news

  • The average American spends about 20 years in retirement; in 1950, the average was about four years. That and other striking facts on US social security from Brookings.
  • For those who ask what the EU has ever done for them (and aren't satisfied with the end to extortionate mobile roaming charges), more good news: by 2017, instant payments across Europe will be possible in two years’ time. If you use euros.
  • With 13 candidates in the field, voters’ second preferences may be a better guide to the likely Republican presidential nominee than their first.

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