We Must Act Now

Article excerpt

Byline: Gordon Brown; Brown is the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

In 11 weeks, the world will convene in Copenhagen, under the auspices of the United Nations, to forge a new international agreement on climate change. It is a historic moment: the ultimate test of global cooperation. Yet the negotiations are proceeding so slowly that a deal is in grave danger. If we miss the opportunity to protect our planet, there will be no second chance some time in the future; no way to go back and undo the catastrophic damage to the environment.

So when world leaders gather this week, first at the U.N. in New York and then at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, it is essential that we move toward resolving the issues that still divide our nations.

As scientists spell out the mounting evidence both of the climate change already occurring and of the threat it poses in the future, we cannot allow the negotiations to run out of time simply for lack of attention. Failure would be unforgivable. The threat is not only humanitarian and ecological, it is also economic. Three years ago, the Stern Report, which I commissioned, concluded that the economic damage of unchecked global warming could amount to 5 to 20 percent of global GDP--an economic cost greater than the losses caused by the two world wars and Great Depression of the 20th century.

Some argue that, amid demanding economic conditions, our resolve to meet environmental commitments should weaken, that the costs are too high. In fact the opposite is true; a strong agreement in Copenhagen is essential for global economic recovery. For that recovery depends on the investment that an agreement will unleash. There can be little doubt that the economy of the 21st century will be low-carbon. What has now become clear is that the push toward decarbonization will be one of the major drivers of global and national economic growth over the next decade. And the economies that embrace the green revolution earliest will reap the greatest economic rewards.

Initially, more efficient consumption of energy will bring greater overall productivity, as resources once directed to meet fuel bills are released for investment. Meanwhile, the need for low-carbon energy production and infrastructure, both to replace aging infrastructure in the developed world and to meet the needs of rapid growth in emerging economies, will require up to $33 trillion of investment by 2030, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency. By 2015, the global environmental sector could be worth $7 trillion and sustain tens of millions of jobs.

Perhaps the most important element of this low-carbon future is the wave of innovation that will accompany the decarbonization drive. Some of the technologies required are fairly mature, such as onshore wind and household insulation--though even there significant improvements are still to be made. But many others will see dramatic improvements and breakthroughs, both in performance and in cost.

This is beginning to happen already in areas like large-scale battery design, as the auto industry accelerates research and development of electric cars. It is happening in sustainable building technologies, in new lightweight materials, in solar power, in carbon capture and storage, and in various lean manufacturing technologies. As innovations in one area feed into others, the economic potential and benefits will ripple out across the global economy.

Just as the revolution in information and communications technologies provided a major motor of growth over the past 30 years, the transformation to low-carbon technologies will do so over the next. It is unsurprising, therefore, that over the past year governments across the world have made green investment a major part of their economic stimulus packages. They have recognized the vital role that spending on energy efficiency and infrastructure can have on demand and employment in the short term, while also laying the foundations for future growth. …