A just completed UN study calls for a $20 trillion global investment in climate change abatement over the next 20 years. This higher-than-usual price tag is no doubt a gross cost figure. Doubtless, too, the $20 trillion figure responds to the demands of a more alarmed scientific community. In any event, $20 trillion is equivalent to1.5 per cent of global GDP for the coming two decades. That’s about three times the rate estimated by Nicholas Stern for the first 20 years of climate change mitigation.
Stern’s estimates weren’t wrong. It’s just that he costed a 500ppm of CO2e concentration target - a target now widely considered inadequate. Climate science has become more demanding. Five star NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen was recently quoted in the Washington Post (December 27, 2007) thus: “The evidence indicates we’ve aimed too high, that the safe atmospheric upper limit for CO2 is 350ppm.”
That’s equivalent to around 400ppm of CO2e and the view that we must aim at something like this figure to hold global temperature increase down to 2C has been current for longer.
These tougher targets, the UN is now telling us, will cost $20 trillion. Is that beyond us? And what of the companion worry: “even if the rich world can scrape together its share, the poor can’t - or won’t - so we’re doomed.” And there are serious reasons for concern here.
Poverty and constrained investment capacity are real enough. Average daily income measured as GDP per capita in the developing world is $4 and, indeed, almost three billion people make do with less than $2. Pay for three meals out of these sums if you can and there isn’t much left.
This is ultimately why the argument in Bali was so intractable, too. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but everyone knows that the rich world wants these basic rations of bread or corn or rice, already more expensive because of climate change, on the negotiating table. Bali was declared a triumph because developing world governments apparently agreed and taking food from the hungry became part of the “road map”.
Fortunately, the whole world is not poor and those raising funds for climate change don’t have to raid poor rations. Average per capita daily income in developed nations, for example, is $80 - a lot more than $4 and providing lots of scope for discretionary spending. Money here, and in the developing world, is not evenly distributed either - so there are very substantial concentrations of elite wealth in both worlds. At the same time both worlds engage in wasteful public spending practices. It is just a little bit sad that no one is exploring these sources of money as alternative climate change funds.
Surely this is not wealth up to its old tricks?: making the poor pay? If so, it’s a bad move, not just morally but strategically: they are not going to pay. And they are not going to pay for a simple reason. If your choice is between your child’s life and that of your great grandchild, you will choose in favour of your child. There’s a great deal to be said here that can’t be said in just a few words. I will just say one short and provocative thing: the principle of intergenerational justice is itself a luxury available only to the relatively rich.
If we want the planet to survive, nothing should be off limits - especially nothing that the rich have. So where is the research to track down money? Apart from or along with refining the science, this is now the most important research on which the planet waits. Let me get it rolling. We need enough money to contain GHG concentrations at 400ppm CO2e and to save the planet. How much is it in terms everyone can understand? And where is it?
Coffee, coke and confection
Let’s have another look at the scale of the task: 1.5 per cent of global GDP or $1 trillion at the moment? If we divide that sum by the 1.1 billion inhabitants of the developed world, it comes to $900 per person per year or $2.50 per person per day. That’s significantly less than a half-way-decent cup of coffee or a worthwhile ice cream. At many places in Australia, there’d be little left after buying a can of coke or a small chocolate bar.
These are currencies we all comprehend and we are in deep discretionary spending country. Why not put these goodies on the table instead of rationed rice or cornbread?
Making do with less of any of these would do many of us - myself included - good. That’s to pay for not just for ourselves but to set the whole world on viable course. Can you believe that? Can you believe that we gamble with the planet for the sake of a little coffee, coke or confection? But I forget the plight of the serious coffee addict or chocaholic. So let me move on to other options.
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