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In Bed With Nicholas Stern

Everywhere I’ve gone for the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken Nick Stern with me. Or rather, his bright blue book with the “World Class” title “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet”.

On several occasions this week I’ve fallen asleep whilst trying to get my head around the dry, dry writing, and today it’s final chapters left my mind almost completely numb.

If this man’s opinion is as central to my country’s negotiating position on Climate Change as he thinks it is, and if my country’s positioning is at all influential worldwide, then we are in serious, dire trouble.

It’s been enough to make me literally weep.

Here are just three things from a whole canine smorgasbord of problems I find wrong with his position :-

a. The Development Analysis Faultline

It’s no good dividing the world into “Developed” and “Developing” nations and then assigning accountability for all production and consumption directly to those groups of nations.

There should be a proper analysis of the role of Companies and Transnational Corporations in creating consumption through advertising propaganda or political lobbying, and then creating the supply to meet the demand of that consumption.

Is it the case that if Transportation were a wholly owned function of Local Authorities in the United Kingdom that we would have so much private car ownership ?

Do the British food shoppers really need to eat products that contain Palm Oil from ex-rainforest land in Indonesia or Malaysia or Borneo ?

It’s not entirely the fault of the Developed nations that they emit such high levels of Greenhouse Gases. In reality it is the privatised procurement of Energy that has gone for the lowest cost Energy, which is the highest in terms of emissions.

There is a third “partner” in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change besides the “Developed” bloc and the “Developing” bloc : it is the corporate bloc, and they have been influencing the whole process : for example in consultations regarding potential Carbon Abatement technologies.

The trade between this third bloc and the other two is more extensive than the commodities trade between the Developed and Developing nations.

b. The Growth Paradigm

Stern just cannot bring himself to acknowledge that, for now, Economic Growth is directly tied to levels of Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Here’s an example from page 206 :-

“Let us organise our emergence from the crisis by investing in the shorter-term projects, such as energy efficiency, which can generate demand and employment quickly and by bringing forward some of the energy and transport infrastructure investments which can lay the foundations for medium- to long-term growth. While there is no doubt that a major consumption boost is necessary as we tackle the severe problems of insufficient demand in the very short run, we must look forward to the investments which can sustain real growth in the future.”

Any form of economic stimulus just now, with the infrastructure that we have, is bound to rack up increased Greenhouse Gas emissions.

And even as we start to de-Carbonise, much of the infrastructure and energy supply will remain Carbon-based for the meantime, so Economic Growth will cause mounting Greenhouse Gas emissions.

A steady-state Economy is a sine qua non for getting control of Carbon.

Even Stern himself admits that growth is not forever : I’ve not noted the page carefully, but it’s in there – his prediction of a tail off in Economic Growth.

He also models in outline the eventual cessation of the Carbon Trading market, which should worry those who believe we so urgently need Carbon Trading to solve Climate Change for us.

c. A Naive Faith in Technological Progress

Stern must have been talking to Dick Taverne or Raymond Kurzweil. He confuses science with technology, and he believes that technology has no limits, particularly energy technology.

There are, in fact, only a limited number of ways to capture the direct and indirect energy from the sun : and some of these are slow and cumbersome, requiring expensive, high maintenance machines.

We know most of what there is to know about harnessing the energy in the wind, waves, tides, sunlight, plants, hot rocks and flowing water. The improving technology will not increase efficiency by very much.

We definitely know how to insulate and draught-proof. Very cheaply.

The future for energy is Renewable and Conservation. We ignore this at our peril. Stern naively hopes in unproven technologies and dead ends.

2 replies on “In Bed With Nicholas Stern”

I saw Stern speaking in Poznan last year, at a side event organised by the Brazilian government. He spoke about “low carbon growth”, but it wasn’t particularly clear what he meant by this. For example, he mentioned that Brazil had recently discovered oil, but said that “In developing those assets, you need to keep your commitment to a low carbon economy.” He suggested this could be done through carbon capture and storage through biomass – i.e. by saving the Amazon rainforest. Later on he mentioned that with an increase in global temperature of 3°C the Amazon would collapse. Which suggests to me that it just may not be possible to “offset” emissions from burning fossil fuels in forests. He was also reluctant to mention any of the problems with biofuels.

Addendum on “The Growth Paradigm”

“A Blueprint for a Safer Planet :
How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity”

by Nicholas Stern


“It is neither economically necessary nor ethically responsible to stop or drastically slow growth to manage climate change. Without strong growth it will be extremely difficult for the poor people of the developing world to lift themselves out of poverty, and we should not respond to climate change by damaging their prospects. Moreover, politically it would be very hard to gain support for action by telling people that they have to choose between growth and climate responsibility. Not only would it be analytically unsound, it would also pose severe ethical difficulties and be so politically destructive as to fail as a policy.

This is not to claim that the world can continue to grow indefinitely. It is not even clear what such a claim would involve; societies, living standards, ways of producing and consuming all develop and change. A picture of indefinite expansion is an implausible story of the future, but two things are key: first, to find a way of increasing living standards (including health, education and freedoms) so that world poverty can be overcome; and second, to discover ways of living that can be sustained over time, particularly in relation to the environment. Strong growth, of the right kind, will be both necessary and feasible for many decades.”

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