Nicholas Stern: Poverty and climate change- the two great challenges of our century

Bob Geldof guest-edited Sunday’s edition of the Italian publication La Stampa. In the coming days we’ll be posting English language versions of the featured articles, including this one from Nicholas Stern:

Poverty and climate change are the two great challenges of the 21st century. Our responses to them will define our generation, and because they are linked to each other, if we fail on one, we will fail on the other. Unmitigated climate change poses huge risks for the planet. If we carry on emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, global average temperature could eventually rise by more than five centigrade degrees, to levels not seen on Earth for more than 30 million years.

However, we understand the scale of the action that is necessary to reduce emissions and the areas on which we must focus: greater energy efficiency, more low-carbon technologies, and a halt to deforestation.

We also know which policies and economic instruments will make these ambitions happen, and we can see a path for investment and economic growth that is attractive for all parts of the world. All we need now is the political will.

The United Nations conference on climate change, due to be held in Copenhagen in December, will be the most important international meeting since the Second World War. It must result in an agreement to halt and reverse the growth in annual global emissions, leading to a reduction of at least 50 per cent by 2050.

Developed countries should lead the way by cutting their annual emissions by at least 80 per cent. The people of developing countries are least responsible for the current levels of greenhouse gases, but they are the most numerous.

Of the projected global population of 9 billion in 2050, 8 billion will live in countries today considered to be part of the developing world. They should play the leading role in shaping the global plan of action against climate change, and they must eventually control their own emissions.

But no matter how successful we are in reducing emissions, we are now committed over the next few decades to some degree of further climate change due to the levels of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

The poorest people in developing countries in Africa and across the world will be most exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change that will occur. These are also the people who are least able to afford the costs of adaptation. For developing countries, adaptation is essentially development in a more hostile climate. It is for them to shape their integrated plans for development and climate change.

The developed countries should provide at least US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This sum should be in addition to current commitments to raise official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of GDP, and in the future this figure should be closer to 1 per cent.

While the two big global challenges of this century are poverty and climate change, we are also facing a crisis in the financial markets and the worst global economic downturn for 80 years which, some may argue, should be all that we focus on now.

But delaying our efforts to tackle poverty would condemn millions of people to many more years of hardship. And delaying action on climate change would mean the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere grows, making the task of dealing with the problem more costly and difficult in the future.

We cannot afford to delay. We can and must, now and simultaneously, handle the short-term financial crisis, foster sound development and economic growth in the medium term, and protect the planet from devastating climate change in the long term.

Developed countries must provide strong financial support, but they must also demonstrate that low-carbon growth is possible. It offers a productive, efficient and attractive route to overcome world poverty.

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