At sustainability conference, global leaders wonder where the investments will come from to build a green economy.

Nobel laureate and IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri at the Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi. Photo: Nick Pattinson.

NEW DELHI  —  “This is the worst time in the world to go to a government minister and say “please sir can I have some money for climate change,” UNFCC head Yvo de Boer told delegates at the Sustainable Development Summit, which opened Thursday in Delhi.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Towards Copenhagen: an equitable and ethical approach,” was admittedly railroaded by the global economic crisis. Heads of state, fresh from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were eager to allay fears that climate change would be forgotten in the scramble to prop up ailing economies, with many describing a unique opportunity for developing a green economy. But the positive spin failed to mask the very real threat that any small steps made last year in Poznan would not be built upon at the UNFCCC in Copenhagen this December, where a post-Kyoto agreement on managing carbon emissions and funding adaptation projects will be decided.

Sen. John Kerry, who spoke via video link from Washington, DC, said he was “stuck, due to a little matter of an $850 billion recovery plan I have to vote on this evening.” Kerry announced, “America is back. America intends to lead on these issues after years on the sidelines of climate change negotiations.”

Nobel laureate and IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri responded to Sen. Kerry’s presentation by saying, “There must be some demonstration of this new desire and resolve to lead.”

“I believe we will have a cap and trade program set up by the end of this year,” Kerry replied. “The US will lead by example.” But he warned that “the Senate will not sign on a treaty that doesn’t involve developing countries making some kind of contribution.” And he pointed out that India’s climate plan, announced last year by the prime minister, was notably lacking in fixed commitments and timetables. “We are collectively falling short,” Kerry said. Borrowing the phraseology of 17th-century American crisis management, he said, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”

In his opening speech, Pachauri had said: “Our record of reducing greenhouse gases is far less than satisfactory, if not alarming.” Pachauri pointed out the global nature of the challenge, emphasizing that for some countries, such as the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Kiribati, it may already be too late, owing to the sea-level rise to which we have effectively committed.

It was a sentiment perfectly articulated by Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president, who spoke directly to the collected heads present, from Finland to Ethiopia, saying: “If any of you have an island you wish to sell, please let us know, because we would like to buy it. Or allow us to migrate to your countries.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (pictured above, seated, third from left), who picked up an environmental leadership award at the conference, spoke about “seizing the opportunity for green economic growth” and added that “climate change itself has the potential to destabilize economies and undermine development.”

Throughout the conference, global economists, business leaders and technology experts here argued that demand for products from home insulation to efficient motors would drive the economy, since someone has to manufacture, distribute, fix, and advertise these new products. But many in the audience of mainly civil servants, scientists, and NGO staff seemed unconvinced that governments and businesses would be forthcoming with the initial investment required for such enterprises. When Haruhiko Kuroda, president of the Asian Development Bank, said that he would be investing in such technologies by doubling shareholder contributions, he was asked how he could be sure that the money would be forthcoming. He responded, “I am a natural optimist.”

More convincing, perhaps, was Tong’s theory that the economic crisis means that people may be more willing than in times of plenty to make lifestyle changes to reduce carbon emissions. “People in the West are cutting back on luxuries and realizing that they still survive  — that it’s not so bad to sacrifice a few things.”

“If only China and India would lend us the money  — because we’re broke  — we would invest it in efficient, clean technologies,” laughed William Reilly, chair of ClimateWorks Foundation and the former head of the EPA.

2009 may well turn out to be the year for climate-change change, as Ban Ki-Moon puts it  — all the global players seem to share the will to address the issue. Whether the financial crisis will stall this new resolution remains to be seen.

Originally published February 3, 2009

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