CANCUN, MEXICO -- At the Cancun climate talks, climate change expert Nicholas Stern presented a vision of a new era in "green" economic growth comparable to the industrial revolution, in which the reduction of both poverty and planet-warming emissions are top priorities.
"The two defining challenges of our century are managing climate change and overcoming poverty," said Stern, a former chief economist of the World Bank. "If we fail on one, we will fail on the other."
"We should not see them as separate ambitions," he said.
Speaking at a side event of the South Korea-based Green Growth Institute (GGGI), where he is vice-chair of the board, Stern said that the "central issue" in the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 UN talks is how to "do green growth."
But the actual negotiations say otherwise.
As countries attempt to thrash out a new legal agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto accord, delegates are lingering on such vital minutiae as how to verify carbon-cutting pledges, forest preservation measures and a funding mechanism to unleash money to poor states struggling to cope with warming.
Many nations continue to treat binding curbs in their industrial emissions and aid to developing nations as a sacrifice not an economic opportunity — at least in their rhetoric.
Han Seung-Soo, former prime minister of Korea and chair of the GGGI board, urged the negotiators at the talks to focus on the bigger picture for the world to see.
From Cutting Carbon to Getting Off Coal
"In dealing with climate change we should not merely focus on imposing mitigation targets on countries, rather we should focus on addressing the root cause of climate change," he said.
"And we all know that our heavy dependence on fossil fuels is the major cause."
The non-profit GGGI was established last June at the East Asia Climate Forum with a commitment of $10 million a year for three years from South Korea. It charts the clearest plan yet for how countries can "leap frog” into the clean energy economy, its leaders say.
Currently, around 1.5 billion people, nearly a quarter of humanity, lack access to electric power.
"It's much easier to [solve] that with sun and wind and water and biomass than with a very big grid structure," Stern said.
Pilot projects are underway in Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia and other nations. The work involves modeling the potential to slash emissions across sectors, including power, transport, buildings and forestry, assessing the impacts on poverty reduction and advising on policies.
By 2012, GGGI’s leaders hope to convert the institute into a full-fledged international organization to create low-carbon growth plans for poorer states and promote the new "paradigm" with research.
What is Green Growth?
Chung Rae-Kwon, director of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, defines green growth as a "system change issue" where investment in renewable energy spurs job creation.
But green growth won't happen from market forces alone, Chung said. "Government has to jump-start it. The private sector has to accept it ... and the people have to accept the lifestyle change."
"Technology will have to play a major role," Han said.
Han and Stern made a commitment in Cancun to help advance a mechanism for technology transfer that would bring clean energy know-how, technologies and manufacturing methods to the developing world.
South Korea Emerging as Clean Energy Giant
"There is no better country to take the lead on this than Korea, which has transformed itself over the last several decades," Stern said.
South Korea, Asia's fourth largest carbon polluter and an emerging renewable energy leader, announced plans recently to pour $35 billion into its clean energy sector by 2015.
In 2009, the government unveiled a five-year green growth plan for "green growth" to funnel two percent of its GDP into clean technologies, green buildings and efficiency.
"It's probably the only country in the world that has a green growth law," Chung said. But it won't be alone, he continued, as China, Cambodia, Indonesia and Kazakhstan are all talking about embracing the nascent economic model next.
UPDATE (Dec 10): On December 8, at the Cancun climate talks, Denmark pledged $5 million a year over three years to the GGGI and allocated in-house assistance to the institute. Lord Stern, vice-chair of the GGGI board, said the Korean-Denmark partnership sends a "powerful message" to other countries — rich and poor — to join "global green growth," which he called the "second industrial revolution."