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Overlooking climate threats could wreck Asia's economy - Sachs

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 24 Oct 2012 16:50 GMT
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BANGKOK (AlertNet) – With two-thirds of the world’s population and some of its fastest growing economies, Asia-Pacific should be “the centre of gravity in the world economy throughout this century” - but climate change could wreck this potential, leading U.S. economist and sustainable development expert Jeffrey Sachs said on Wednesday.

The head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University urged countries in the region to embark on development that is sustainable, not only focusing on economic prosperity but also socially inclusive policies, environmental sustainability and good governance.

Asia-Pacific is becoming the main driver of growing world greenhouse gas emissions as its economy and population grows. That is thanks in part to China which is now the leading emitter, said Sachs. Scientists say excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are driving climate change.

Asia-Pacific is also highly vulnerable to climate change impacts due to its population density and the presence of many low-lying countries, which can be vulnerable to flooding, storm surges and sea level rise.

The region is already most prone to natural disasters, both in terms of the number of disasters and the number of people exposed, and the exposure is rising.

Some 185 million people are exposed to annual flooding and storms in Asia-Pacific, a figure that has mushroomed in the past four decades due to economic growth and expanding urban populations, said the U.N.’s Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012 released Tuesday.

If countries ignore growing environmental and climate change pressures, any future report on disasters would be “about why 20 megacities in Asia are 10 metres under the water level,” said Sachs.

“In other words, we won't even have an Asian economy to write about,” he said at a lecture at the United Nations regional headquarters in Bangkok.

“A lot of Asia’s own economic and ecological future is in Asia’s hands,” he told journalists after the lecture.

“Plotting a low-carbon energy future… is extremely important,” he said. This includes solar, wind and nuclear power if countries determine the latter is safe and can be done prudently.

DEVELOPMENT AS AN EXCUSE

Many Asian countries are concentrating on development, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the environment, Sachs told the audience.

"The unfortunate idea that floats around - that countries should focus on poverty reduction but don't really have to be too concerned with the environment at the early stages of development, get rich and then clean up the environment - this will not do,” he said.

This is because it’s the poor that bear the brunt of climate change.

“There is no possibility of a sustained victory against poverty unless the environment is attended to all along the way,” Sachs said.

Sachs also said effects of burning fossil fuel on the climate has been understood for more than a century – it was predicted in a 1896 paper by Swedish scientist and Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius.

“(He said) if we burn fossil fuels and double the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we would approximately raise the temperature by 3 to 5 degree Centigrade,” said Sachs.

However, Arrhenius failed to take into account the modern world’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels and predicted it would take about 700 years to do this, said Sachs. Sachs said he believes the world would reach that level of temperature increases soon, in a period of only about 140 years from when intensive fossil fuel use began.

"The consequences are extraordinarily dangerous and unprecedented for humanity because we've never ever had the ability to change climate before. And now we're in the driver's seat,” he seat.

GOOD GOVERNANCE KEY

The wide-ranging 60-minute lecture touched on extreme climate events in the world, the millennium development goals, the free market economy – “the most horrendous phrase that exists in the economic lexicon” Sachs said - and population growth.

One point he emphasised was the importance of good governance for sustainable development, without which the three other pillars – economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability – cannot be achieved, he said.

He said the private sector requires as much good governance as the government and public sector, and used the recent second debate between U.S. presidential candidates as an example.  

"We had the two presidential candidates discussing energy policy for 10 minutes and neither of them even mentioned climate," due to fear of angering the powerful oil industry, he said.

“That's not good governance, neither by the politicians and less by the companies who are major funders of the political system in the United States," Sachs added.

"If you have a political system in which an election campaign costs $7 billion… and the presidential candidates spend $1 billion each on advertising, you may be sure it's not the little person being represented in the politics,” he said.  

According to Sachs, the basis of good corporate governance includes no lobbying, no campaign financing, full disclosures and the concept that the polluter pays.

“All of this (hunger, increasing inequality and degradation of environment) is a paradox because we're living in the best of times from the point of view of our knowledge and our technologies,” he said.

“We're not short of ideas yet we're plunging headlong into disaster.”

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