News | 5th Dec, 2012

UN warning on ‘trillion-dollar’ climate costs

5 December 2012
Sarah Clarke, PM ABC

The UN's green economy ambassador says he's deeply disappointed with global action so far. Pavan Sukhdev is in Australia to brief the Federal Government and the financial sector. He warns that governments and business are still underestimating the trillion-dollar economic costs associated with a lack of policy. 

And he says the corporate sector needs to get some 'common sense, stop staring' and become 'agents for change'. 

Pavan Sukhdev spoke to the ABC's environment reporter Sarah Clarke. 

PAVAN SUKDEV: Look to be honest, I think not just governments but everyone needs to take ownership of climate change. Yes, I think time is short and I think the recent discovery of tundra melt and arctic melt the time is getting even shorter, so action needed now.

SARAH CLARKE: Are you optimistic that these negotiations in Doha will get us to the next stage where we'll have an international legally binding agreement by 2015?

PAVAN SUKDEV: I think that's half the step, I would be pleasantly surprised if everything was achieved at this meeting. But I think firstly the first few steps will be taken.

But I think more importantly, it's very important for this conference to start recognising the importance the corporations, the need to engage corporate leadership and entire sectors of the economy in order to get the kind of traction that they need, in order to achieve the changes by 2020 that they require.

SARAH CLARKE: Do you think that business and the corporate sector are ahead of governments with regards to action on climate change?

PAVAN SUKDEV: They ought to be, but they are not, not for now. There are of course leaders, there are remarkable corporations are doing the right things, like Puma in disclosure, or Unilever in creating change. But unfortunately I wouldn't say they're ahead, right, they are sort of straddling across a ring and looking at each other. Please, stop staring at each other, get on with it.

SARAH CLARKE: How do you see climate change as a threat to our economies and what kind of figure do you say is placed on the costs down the track?

PAVAN SUKDEV: I think Lord Stern, when he was asked that question, said that in his own estimate they had underestimated the impacts of climate change as a risk and therefore the future cost of the economy. 

So in other words, the original Stern Review, if you remember that came out at numbers like 5 per cent, 20 per cent of damage which could be avoided by investing 1 odd per cent of change in technology and investment against the sort of pattern of business that result in climate-changing emissions.

So I think those were underestimates because, according to Lord Stern himself, the risks were understated and the impacts were understated and, of course, the benefits of making the change happen therefore. And I think those are real numbers, people need to get used to them and internalise and get those numbers into their business thinking. 

SARAH CLARKE: Are you surprised about how slow both the corporate sector and governments are to act on warnings that scientists have been giving for some time?

PAVAN SUKDEV: I'm not just surprised but I'm actually disappointed. I thought there'd be more people who had the common sense and the vision to understand that without action and without changing behaviour at the level of the corporation. The corporation today is 70 per cent of the economy and jobs, without changing the corporation we will not get changes in the economy. Without changes in the economy we will not get a climate-secure future.

So I am actually disappointed that corporate leaders, not enough of them see that as clearly as I do.

SARAH CLARKE: You're talking to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the next couple of days in Canberra; what warnings are you giving governments, including Australia?

PAVAN SUKDEV: Well I think the – once again my focus largely is on the private sector and on making them recognise their role in presenting leadership and presenting a momentum for change and for governments to encourage them to do so – to create the level playing fields, to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, to look for conversation actions which defend natural capital and so on. 

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