Science Hopes at the G20

Europe / by Veronique Greenwood /

Green investment by the G20 as part of an economic stimulus package could create jobs and address the economic and environmental threats of climate change.

Audio from London: The Royal Society’s James Wilsdon on the science policy issues on the table at the G20 meeting. Download as mp3

As the G20 leaders conclude their London meeting today, scientists and environmentalists wonder how their response to the global credit crunch will affect funding for science and climate-change abatement.

The Group of Twenty industrial nations make up 85 percent of the world’s GDP — and most of its greenhouse gas emissions. G20 meetings are usually limited to the finance ministers and heads of major banks from the EU and 19 countries, as well as heads of the IMF and World Bank. But this meeting and the last, in November 2008, have also included heads of state, a reflection of the magnitude and scope of the problems facing the world. In addition, nonmember nations Spain and the Netherlands have sent representatives.

Drafts of the summit’s eagerly anticipated statement were leaked to Der Spiegel and the Financial Times this week: Summarizing the effects of stimulus packages so far, the drafts reference the creation of up to 20 million jobs and project more aid for developing countries and the International Monetary Fund along with affirmations of free trade and increased regulation of international finance.

Some environmentalists and climate scientists see increased investment in science and green tech as a way to dovetail job creation with conversion to a green economy. A report issued last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK), argues that “green” investment by the G20 as part of an economic stimulus package would create jobs and address the economic and environmental threats of climate change. The authors, including Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics, argue that since the changing climate will affect the world’s economy even more than a credit slump, stimulus funds should be used to stimulate a low-carbon economy while they stimulate growth to reverse the recession. “Otherwise, once the world economy recovers, sharply increasing energy prices are likely at some stage to trigger subsequent slowdowns,” said co-author Ottmar Edehofer, chief economist of PIK, in a release that accompanied the report. “Without the transition towards a low-carbon global energy system, the next economic crisis is pre-programmed.“

On the side of basic research, the US’s sizeable stimulus investment in science has generated “huge interest” in Europe, reports James Wilsdon, director of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Center and a Seed columnist. The British minister for science, for instance, has requested a report from the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society on how stimulus funds could be used to grow science. And Spain’s prime minister has expressed interest in directing a limited amount of stimulus funding to science.

But the Potsdam report and others like it depend on countries allocating a new wave of stimulus funds, notes Wilsdon. “The question is whether there will be big new spending attachments to the summit in London,” he says.

Last week, the Bank of England and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a major lobbying group, came out strongly against further government stimulus spending. The CBI’s deputy general secretary said that the government should wait to let money in the pipeline take effect and focus now on balancing the budget. And the CBI’s chief economist has stated that lower interest rates and the stimulus funds already expended should be sufficient. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has also come out against further government spending.

The hopes of a G20-wide commitment to more stimulus spending thus seem diminished. But though a blanket decision to fund science and low-carbon initiatives may not emerge today, domestic implementation of such plans, perhaps by this summer’s G8 meeting, remains a possibility.

Originally published April 1, 2009

Tags climate funding growth policy

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