Don't let policy uncertainty block adaptation to climate change

David Fullbrook says business must start search for sustainability even as global talks languish

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2013, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 November, 2013, 1:57am

Confusion, ambivalence and conflict over the global climate were never so clear as in Warsaw this month. As the caravan of the UN climate change negotiations came to rest in the Polish capital, sponsors assured negotiators that clean coal could power a prosperous future while across the city, the host government coincidentally convened a coal industry summit.

Commercial sponsors might reassuringly play down the consequences of climate change. Playing up clean coal as the key to future prosperity might fuel hope. Both positions are mistaken.

The news from the Arctic, Greenland and the oceans, among many other places, is of accelerating climate change. Coal will always be carbon laced with all sorts of toxic elements. Never mind that mining and combustion are thirsty processes in a world of rising water scarcity, in part because of climate change.

In any case, the usual bickering and absence of inspiring breakthroughs only deepened the despair many feel after nearly two decades of negotiations and rising emissions. Not that any were expected, as talks were primarily preparations for a global treaty to slash greenhouse gas emissions, in Paris in 2015.

Nevertheless, with so much at stake, the Warsaw talks could have done more to build confidence. China, for one, appears exasperated at the lack of ambition and little if any concrete progress on commitments by developed countries to provide US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to storms and rising seas.

Policymakers are failing to provide clear and strong signals over the broad outlines of a deal.

This uncertainty dims the prospects for economies and societies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Uncertain policy makes it harder for business to take the long-term strategy and investment decisions necessary to provide materials and solutions at a scale and speed to help us move to sustainability.

Businesses need not wait for policymakers, however, because either way the future will be highly disruptive and demand great innovation. A weak climate treaty guarantees radical weather, which disturbs ecosystems and depresses agriculture. An ambitious treaty to stop climate change means radical annual cuts, around 8 per cent a year by 2020, according to one estimate, in carbon emissions. Both will, in different ways, affect energy flows and supply chains.

Of course, many firms and investors are already taking up opportunities as the world begins to shift to clean energy and sustainable processes. But every firm or investor must now restructure for resilience and continuity if they are to thrive in our radical future.

David Fullbrook is an ecological economist and climate specialist