It has often been said that with economic growth comes more pollution. A classic example is China, with 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. The Chinese economy grew at an average of 10 percent over the past three decades, but so did its pollution. Several African nations growing at an impressive rate have also seen pollution rise.
With Climate change threatening to exacerbate poverty and hurt economic growth there must be a way to “decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions” if the world will end the development challenges it faces.
“We have to keep the economy growing – there is no turning back on growth,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim told the student audience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on March 18. He offers insight into how we can divorce growth from carbon emissions, suggesting five things that need to be done to achieve this.
Put a price on carbon
Cutting emissions starts with clear policy signals.
Carbon pricing systems – such as emissions trading systems that cap emissions or carbon taxes that charge per ton – send a long-term signal to companies by creating an incentive to reduce polluting behaviors and to invest in cleaner energy choices and low-carbon innovation.
Close to 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces now have or are preparing to implement carbon pricing through emissions trading systems or carbon taxes, and their numbers are growing. Korea launched the newest carbon market in January. China, with seven pilot carbon markets in cities and provinces, saw its emissions drop last year and plans to launch a national emissions trading system as early as 2016.
“A price on carbon is the single most important thing we have to get out of a Paris agreement. It will unleash market forces,” President Kim said when asked about expectations for the international climate agreement expected in December 2015 in Paris.
End fossil fuel subsidies
Fossil fuel subsidies send a different signal – one that can encourage waste and discourage low-carbon growth. By phasing out harmful fossil fuel subsidies, countries can reallocate their spending to where it is most needed and most effective, including proving targeted support for the poor.
Nearly $550 billion went into direct fossil fuel subsidies worldwide in 2013, taking up large percentages of some countries’ GDP to artificially lower energy prices. Yet, “the evidence shows that fossil fuel subsidies are not at all about protecting the poor,” President Kim said. Studies show the wealthiest 20 percent of the population captures six times the benefit from fossil fuel subsidies as the poorest 20 percent.
Reforming subsidies is never easy. Often, the population is unaware of the true costs of energy, and support for the poor must be phased in as the subsidies are phased out. The World Bank is providing support for fossil fuel subsidies reform through a $20 million facility that will help countries design and implement subsidy reform and accompanying social protection systems.
Build low-carbon, resilient cities
Getting prices right is one part of the equation. Another piece is building a sustainable future, because all development happens in the context of climate change.
There will be more infrastructure built in the next 20 years than in the past 6,000, the president told the audience. Cities are growing fast, particularly in the developing world. Just over half the global population is urban today; by 2050, cities are expected to hold two-thirds of the world population.
With careful planning of transportation and land use, and the establishment of energy efficiency standards, cities can build in ways that avoid locking in unsustainable patterns. They can open up access to jobs and opportunity for the poor and reduce damaging air pollution.
Financing that growth to be sustainable can be a challenge, though. Data show that only about 4 percent of the 500 largest developing countries cities are deemed creditworthy in international markets. The World Bank Group is helping cities improve their strategic planning and fix the financial fundamentals that can prevent them from accessing finance.
Increase energy efficiency and use of renewable energy
When we talk about energy, we have to talk about access. Worldwide, about 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.8 billion rely on solid fuels for cooking, such as wood, charcoal, and coal, which cause harmful indoor air pollution.
Through the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, the World Bank Group supports three goals for 2030: to achieve universal access to modern energy, double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
Energy efficiency improvements are crucial. Every gigawatt saved is a gigawatt that didn’t have to be produced. Globally, energy use is about one-third lower today than it would have been without the past 20 years of energy efficiency improvements.
Renewable energy, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly affordable as prices fall. In many countries, developing utility-scale renewable energy is now cheaper than or on par with fossil fuel plants.
Implement climate-smart agriculture and nurture forest landscapes
The fifth area for action takes in both mitigation and adaptation. Climate-smart agriculture techniques help farmers increase their farms’ productivity and resilience to the impacts of climate change, such as droughts, while also creating carbon sinks that help reduce net emissions. Forests, too, are valuable carbon sinks that absorb carbon and store it in soils, trees, and foliage.
Attacking climate change in all that we do
Global efforts to reduce emissions are having an effect. Last week, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency announced that global CO2 emissions had been flat in 2014 for the first time in four decades without an accompanying economic downturn, while the global economy grew by 3 percent.
“Is this the beginning of decoupling carbon emissions from growth? We sure hope so,” President Kim said.
Even if we do all of this successfully, we will still see changes, the president said. Scientists believe that about 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is already locked in through the amount of greenhouse gas emitted and expected in the coming years, so the world will have to adapt while bringing down emissions.
That means building resilience into all development and increasing financial support for preparedness and prevention.
As a major provider of finance, the World Bank Group invests in disaster preparedness, renewable energy, energy efficiency, city planning and development, and providing decision-makers with the tools and data they need to make informed decisions. It tracking financial commitments for climate mitigation adaptation co-benefits, screens for disaster and climate risk, and uses greenhouse gas accounting and a price on carbon.
“What we really want to do is see how we can attack this problem in just about everything we do,” the president said.
The World Bank Group