Burning Down the House

World leaders must act on all global challenges when they recognize them. Preventing bank failures and stopping terrorist attacks are important goals; unless we get serious about addressing climate change, we are likely to have more of both.

ABIDJAN – What does it take to generate a global response to a global threat? The financial crisis of 2008 and the threats from insurgency and terrorism in 2014 are seen as “clear and present dangers” to one and all – and both have drawn a global response.

Meanwhile, climate change, and the devastating effects of carbon-dioxide emissions, pose greater and longer-term threats, and yet have elicited only a feeble response from the global community for the past 30 years. In New York this week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a summit of world leaders to address this global phenomenon, which urgently requires collective intervention.

The world has played politics with climate change for long enough. Immediate electoral or economic imperatives will never alter the fact that global warming will be as damaging for the rich world as it already is for the poor.

The world has flagrantly failed in its response to the 2005 Kyoto Protocol: Today, we emit more greenhouse gases than at any point in history. We know that we need to keep global warming below 2° Celsius to avoid a planetary catastrophe, and yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change informed us last year that we are on course for a 3.7°-4.8°C rise in average global temperature by the end of the century.

No region of the world is immune to the impact of CO2 emissions. The World Meteorological Organization has recorded more than 8,000 weather, climate, and water-related disasters worldwide since 1970, costing nearly two million lives and some $2.4 trillion. A third of these cases were in Africa, accounting for almost 700,000 lives and economic damage of about $27 billion. In 2012 alone, the continent experienced 99 extreme weather events, which is double the long-term average. Twenty percent more Africans will be at risk of hunger in 2050 due to a changing climate.

The costs of adapting to climate change are also high: an estimated $45-$50 billion per year by the 2040s, and $350 billion per year by the 2070s. If Africa fails to find the money to finance adaptation, the total damage could amount to 7% of Africa’s GDP by the end of this century.

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At the very least, we need the UN meeting to produce four outcomes. The first is a global commitment to cut greenhouse-gas emissions through smart, efficient fiscal and economic policies and regulation – including carbon pricing, reduced fossil-fuel subsidies, incentives, and performance standards. This would not only help to fight climate change, but would also benefit growth, competitiveness, and job creation. This is particularly true in Africa, where some countries, are on an alarming trajectory toward becoming major greenhouse-gas emitters, despite having abundant natural resources that can be developed sustainably and with a minimal carbon footprint.

Second, we need a global agreement on a mechanism to raise and channel sufficient and predictable financial support and to accelerate technology transfer to developing countries, especially in Africa. Current funding levels will not suffice. I sat on the UN High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Finance, which concluded in 2010 that we could mobilize $100 billion annually by imposing an agreed levy per ton of CO2 emitted. Thus far, the world has not displayed the political will to do that.

Third, world leaders should vow to remove all obstacles to a legally binding universal agreement at the global climate conference in Paris in December 2015. And when that agreement is reached, it must be rigorously implemented. A fixed penalty price for non-compliance will send the right signal of the world’s collective recognition that our economic future is inextricably linked with our environmental future.

Finally, we need a specific commitment from African leaders to create the right climate to attract private-sector support for green development. The most forward-thinking private investors are already searching for any green investment that offers a reasonable yield. Africa must make such opportunities easier to find, by consistently implementing good environmental policies; establishing national “green growth” road maps; devising innovative financing vehicles to minimize risk; and lowering transaction costs.

World leaders must act on all global challenges when they recognize them. Preventing bank failures and stopping terrorist attacks are important goals; unless we get serious about addressing climate change, we are likely to have more of both.