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Will Leaders Think Losing 0.06% of Growth Is Worth It To Beat Climate Change?

It is possible to curb climate change without damaging the global economy, but the overriding task is to stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the century, according to the most comprehensive report on global warming yet published by scientists for the IPCC.

The different outcomes for the world with or without climate change

The different outcomes for the world with or without climate change, according to the IPPC.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading authority on the subject, says that without removing our reliance on fossil fuels, more frequent and intense, extreme weather, along with rising sea levels and other impacts will add costs "that cannot even be quantified", according to Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the panel chairman, at the launch of the study in Copenhagen yesterday.

The tone of the report is more urgent than previous ones in the panel's 26 year history. Governments have little time to waste.

"Delaying additional mitigation to 2030 will substantially increase the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges associated with limiting the warming over the 21st-century to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels," the report says.

In 2010 governments agreed that 2°C was the limit beyond which average atmospheric global temperatures should not stray without fear of reckless harm to the planet.

Projected climate changes

Potential impacts of climate change

The scientists quantified the damage to the economy as being just an average of 0.06 percentage point cutsin the rate of global consumption per year, a fraction of that caused by the banking collapse. The presentation accompanying the report says  this assumes BAU growth 1.6 - 3%, and that it translates into delayed and not forgone growth. Nor does the estimated cost account for the benefits of reduced climate change.

Meanwhile unmitigated climate change would create increasing risks to economic growth.

"Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act, time is not on our side," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in presenting the report.

There would still be big demands on some nations, however.

"That is an average figure," said the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research's Dr Ottmar Edenhofer. "For some countries this could be quite a huge challenge," meaning, any country whose economies rely, or plan to rely, heavily on fossil fuel extraction.

Prof Richard Tol, from the UK's University of Sussex, commented: "it has long been known that smart policy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a small cost, even for deep cuts," but that requires a carbon tax applied equally to everyone, and "all evidence to date is that governments compete on who can think of the daftest climate policies". He cited subsidies and tax breaks as examples.

The window for action is rapidly closing, since we have already used up 65% of our carbon budget consistent with preventing warming greater than 2°C.

The IPCC report documents several tactics for lowering emissions. At the top of this is a high price on carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. The revenue would be channelled into more energy efficiency, renewable energies from wind to solar power, nuclear energy, and carbon capture an existing power plants which are currently prohibitively expensive.

Climate change mitigation measures

"Irreversible" damage would be the consequence of failure to act, such as a runaway melt of Greenland's vast ice sheets and the emission of huge volumes of methane from melting tundra. The result would submerge coastal regions and cities or disrupt monsoons vital for growing food.

"The cost of inaction will be horrendously higher than the cost of action," Pachauri said.

The report published yesterday is a synthesis report, compiling information assembled by over 830 scientists from 80 countries in the Panel's fifth assessment. Over the panel's life its main conclusions have not changed. The scientific rigour brought to bear on the process has merely served to add detail in the face of momentous attacks by sceptics.

John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, said the report was "yet another wake-up call to the global community that we must act together swiftly and aggressively in order to stem climate change".

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey called it "the most comprehensive, thorough and robust assessment of climate change ever produced. It sends a clear message that should be heard across the world – we must act on climate change now. It's now up to the politicians – we must safeguard the world for future generations by striking a new climate deal in Paris next year."

Dr Jeremy Leggett, Founder and Chairman, Solarcentury & SolarAid commented that "UN and IPCC officials majored on the role of business in the phase out of fossil fuels. From this day on, I think such business leaders will need to be worrying about their liability insurance, class–actions in their retirement from people and investors impacted."

The fundamental question is: when world leaders meet next year in Paris to argue over a legally binding deal to curb climate change, will they consider that losing 0.06% of potential growth per year is too expensive?