Two new United Nations-sponsored reports offer hope that the world will be able to reduce the severity of climate change – and bring other benefits to its people.
One report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) argues that there are plenty of opportunities for creating wealth, jobs, a more pleasant environment and improved social equality by transferring subsidies that support polluting activities to those supporting low carbon ones, up to a value equivalent to about 2% of global GDP.
Another, Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone, also argues that by imposing strict limits on emissions of "black carbon" soot, methane and tropospheric ozone - a greenhouse gas that is also a significant component of smog - would clear the air, reduce human deaths and improve crop yields.
It would also reduce the impacts of climate change in the short term by 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 Fahrenheit) to the equivalent of a carbon dioxide presence in the atmosphere of 450 ppm.
Black carbon, caused by incomplete burning mainly of fossil fuels and wood, is blamed for accelerating global warming by soaking up heat from the sun. Soot can darken snow and ice when it lands, hastening a thaw such as in the Arctic or Himalayas.
Ozone is not directly emitted but is produced from precursors including methane and carbon monoxide. The troposphere is the lower atmosphere; higher up, ozone is beneficial as un ultra-violet sunshield.
Many studies show that existing pledges made at Cancun for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to reach the 2 degree limit, widely viewed as a threshold to dangerous change from floods, heatwaves, desertification and rising sea levels. But the measures outlined in the report could buy the world more time to implement the measures in the other report, outlined below.
"This is not an alternative to carbon dioxide reductions, it's complementary," commented Johan Kuylenstierna, of the Stockholm Environment Institute, scientific coordinator of the report, produced also with help from the World Meteorological Organization and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Proposed measures include cuts in flaring of natural gas, curbing gas leaks from pipelines and reducing methane emissions from livestock. Poor countries should make wider use of cleaner-burning stoves, and open-field burning of farm waste should be banned.
The scientists say that achieving widespread implementation of the measures they recommend would be most effective if it were done at a country or region level.
Transition to the green economy
The other report, Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, makes a number of positive suggestions, again with multiple spin-off benefits.
It argues that investing just 2% of global GDP into ten key sectors can kick-start a transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy. These include agriculture, buildings, energy, fisheries, forests, manufacturing, tourism, transport, water and waste management.
The sum, currently amounting to an average of around $1.3 trillion a year , backed by forward-looking national and international policies, would grow the global economy at around the same rate if not higher than those forecast under current economic models.
The report comprehensively debunks the myth of a trade-off between environmental investments and economic growth and instead points to a current "gross misallocation of capital".
Removing existing and harmful subsidies in energy, water, fisheries and agriculture sectors, alone, would save 1-2% of global GDP a year, which could be used for the transition to the green economy.
The figure of 2% of global GDP assumed is a fraction of total gross capital formation; about 22% of global GDP in 2009.
The report says that greening the economy generates growth - in particular gains in natural capital (biodiversity and resources) - and in fact a higher growth in GDP and GDP per capita than business-as-usual. "It is expected to generate as much growth and employment – or more – compared to the current business as usual scenario, and it outperforms economic projections in the medium and long term, while yielding significantly more environmental and social benefits," the authors say.
The report contains many case studies to illustrate this, for example in India, where over 80% of the $8 billion National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which underwrites at least 100 days of paid work for rural households, invests in water conservation, irrigation and land development. This has generated three billion working days-worth of employment benefiting close to 60 million households.
Such measures can therefore contribute to poverty alleviation because there "is an inextricable link between poverty alleviation and the wise management of natural resources and ecosystems, due to the benefit flows from natural capital that are received directly by the poor".
New jobs will be created, which over time exceed the losses in “brown economy” jobs.
The transition towards a green economy is already happening on a scale and at a speed never seen before.
Therefore, the report concludes: “world leaders, civil society and leading businesses must engage collaboratively to rethink and redefine traditional measures of wealth, prosperity and well-being. What is clear is that the biggest risk of all would be to continue with the status quo."