In fewer than 20 years, climate change impacts – from flooded major cities to crashing food production – threaten to fundamentally reshape the world economy and dramatically worsen human lives, the World Bank’s president warned on Wednesday.
But political will to act on climate change, particularly by major players such as China, is rapidly building, even as U.N.-led climate talks falter, Kim Yong Kim said at a Thomson Reuters discussion in London.
After seeing widespread deaths from pollution last winter, “there’s a new spirit in China,” Kim said. The Asian giant, the world’s largest carbon emitter, is setting “really, really aggressive goals” on curbing climate-changing emissions, and are moving to establish what could be the world’s biggest national carbon market, he said.
Right now, “they’re more serious than any country I know” in terms of acting on climate change, Kim said. That, combined with what he said was strong political will in the White House to address the problem and moves to curb emissions from New Delhi to New York, could add up to changes that will eventually address “the huge bulk of the issue” – even if it’s not happening fast enough, he said.
New Delhi, for instance, now runs its once smoke-belching buses on cleaner – though still not clean enough – natural gas. Hong Kong has halved the number of cars in the city. And in Africa and other regions, climate-smart changes to agriculture are lowering emissions and laying the groundwork to shore up food production.
New York City, which pledged to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2030, now is on track to reach its goal by 2017, Kim said. And Germany is leading the world in growing its economy while reducing its carbon footprint.
“Every country in the world has to move in that direction,” Kim said.
Some of the impetus to action has come from worsening extreme weather that has brought increasingly frequent record-breaking droughts, floods, fires and storms throughout the world.
“I’ve lost count of the number of once-in-a-lifetime events that happened in the last two or three years,” Kim said. Climate change, he said, is particularly playing out in changes in the planet’s water cycles, with some regions getting far too much and others far too little.
In a report on the regional impacts of climate extremes, released on Wednesday by the World Bank, scientists predicted that by 2030, as world temperatures rise by an expected 2 degrees Celsius, 40 percent of the maize farmland in Africa could become unsuitable for growing the crop. The southern Philippines over the same period could see its fisheries fall by half, the report said.
Stunting from malnutrition “is going to be everywhere”, Kim said.
In South Asia, a shifting monsoon is likely to leave some regions underwater, and others in worsening drought, the report said, with major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Dhaka also facing increasingly intense cyclones. In Southeast Asia, Bangkok could be underwater by 2030 or 2040, the report said.
“CHANGE IN OUR LIFETIMES”
“It’s coming unless world leaders do something about it,” Kim warned. “This report should make us lose sleep over what our world will look like in our lifetimes.”
“Climate change is a short and medium term risk to the global economy,” he said. “People think it’s about their grandkids. It’s not.”
The World Bank, he said, now looks at the effect on climate change of all of its lending decisions, he said, though finding the right answers isn’t always easy.
In Liberia, for instance, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has begged the bank for help in increasing the country’s paltry access to energy, in order to attract investment, start industries and provide jobs for former soldiers who remain a threat to the country’s stability while they are unemployed.
That urgency has led the bank to support coal-fired energy projects in Liberia, Kim admitted. “I’m going to try everything I can to avoid investing in coal … but I can’t look Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the eye and say, ‘You have to wait’,” he said.
HOPE FOR U.N. CLIMATE TREATY
Kim said he believes the slow-moving U.N. climate change negotiations, which aim to build a new global climate treaty in 2015, to take effect in 2020, are crucial but clearly not enough, and that delaying action on climate change until the new treaty takes effect is “a lame excuse in the face of what we’re about to hand to our children”.
What’s needed is hard work to scale up the climate-friendly changes that are happening now but are insufficient, he said, while continuing to “push our leaders to sign global agreements”.
China’s increasing serious worries about climate change give him some hope for the U.N. process, he said.
“The fact that China is being so aggressive about their own carbon market is a really, really encouraging sign for a global (climate) agreement,” he said. If China, the United States and Europe could form the basis of a world carbon market, then low-carbon investment will surge and “finally, finally we’ll have market mechanisms working to help us deal with climate change”.
GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT NEEDED
Part of what is necessary to drive political action on climate change, he said, is a genuine grassroots movement, something that is currently missing. Action on HIV/AIDS, he said, came only after activists went into national health institutes, threw blood and demanded change.
“I keep asking: ‘Where is the plan for that?’ We don’t have it yet,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a movement.”
Scientists and climate experts, similarly, have done a poor job at helping people understand the links between extreme weather and climate change, and providing them with answers about what to do to make a difference, beyond what he called “small-bore answers” like installing solar panels.
“We need to put together a plan that is equal to the challenge, and we have not done that yet,” he said. “As extreme weather events continue to happen, I think public opinion is going to change and at that point we need to have a plan.”