On 23 September UNU hosted a thematic session on “The Economic Case for Climate Action” as part of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit 2014 in New York. The session, organized by the UNU Centre for Policy Research, in close partnership with the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security and the UNU Office in New York, was co-chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey) and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia), moderated by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Secretary-General Angel Gurría, and featured President Felipe Calderón (Global Commission on the Economy and Climate), Prof. Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University), Prof. Leena Srivastava (The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi) and Prof. Xu Jintao (Peking University) as panellists. The audience consisted of approximately 200 high-level representatives of government, civil society and academia, including several prominent figures in the climate debate.
The highlights of the discussion included President Erdoğan’s surprisingly strong endorsements of the needs for a binding climate agreement in 2015 and to meet the goal of keeping global warming within two degrees Celsius; Prime Minister Hailemariam’s warnings of the devastating effects of climate change on crop yields in Ethiopia; President Calderón’s presentation of headline findings of the New Climate Economy Report; Prof. Sachs’ urgent calls for climate action combined with strong criticism of the US’ and other governments’ failure to live up to the challenge; and Prof. Srivastava’s and Prof. Xu’s comments on the specific challenges and opportunities faced by India and China in the fight against climate change.
While all panellists agreed that failure to tackle global warming would have devastating consequences for global development, contrasting viewpoints became evident between President Calderón’s suggestion that market forces would drive climate action thanks to falling prices of renewable energy and rapid technological innovation, and Prof. Sachs’ reminder that bringing about the necessary shifts will be costly, requiring massive and unprecedented public investments in new technologies and proactive regulatory action by governments. Another fault line emerged over the issue of carbon pricing, with most panellists’ strong endorsement of fossil fuel subsidy reform (President Calderón: “They’re paying for swimming pools of the middle class”) contrasting with Prof. Srivastava’s argument that subsidies are necessary to make fossil fuels affordable for the poor, whose growing carbon footprint would need to be accepted in light of India’s development path. Meanwhile, Prof. Xu highlighted the importance of often overlooked dimensions in China’s fight against climate change, including anti-corruption measures to break up the monopoly of the energy industry, as well as actions at the rural (reform of land and forest tenure systems) and subnational levels (local carbon taxes), which appear to be outside of central government control.