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Professor Jeffrey Sachs on Growth and Technology
at the Global Humanitarian Forum Geneva 25 June 2008

home | climate | energy | sustainability | water | back | Jeffrey Sachs on the BBC April 2007
Conference Programm 24-25 June Tuesday, 24 June Wednesday, 25 June

Plenary debate on Wednesday 25.6.08 12:00 - 13:00 h:

"Is politics or technology the grand solution to climate challenge?"

Discussion between
  • Javier Solana (right), High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, European Union; Secretary-General, Council of the European Union; Secretary-General, NATO (1995–1999)
  • Jeffrey Sachs (left), Director, The Earth Institute at Columbia University; Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

  • Moderated by Philippe Mottaz, Director, World Radio Switzerland:
      "It's really a pleasure and a privilege, an honour to have here on stage the high representative of the European Union and Dr Sachs, to debate, exchange - we don't know yet, we'll find out, probably a bit of both. So this is what we're trying to do. I'm gona gonig to gô back what Nisha [the facilitator from the BBC] said, we're gonna try to be accessible. We're gonne try to be clear on what we're talking about. We're trying to tell the story so that the story can be understood. That's essentially what the media is all about.
      And I want to start very quickly by asking the High Representative. You're coming to the forum on climate change. Give us in plain terms your view. Or where are we at this point as seen from your position on the climate change. I'm gonna give you three minutes. You're gonna make it concise. You're gonna give me the points where we agree, where we disagree, what's creating you a problem, all this. And then we'll see and we'll take it from there."
    Interestingly, Mr Solana started saying frankly that he was being asked questions on a subject that he had little knowledge of:
      [Mr Solana (1:30)] "Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you very much first of all for inviting me. I truly don't have any expertise on the issue you're asking me to answer, to respond to the question placed. But let me tell you for me it's a great pleasure to be here, on this forum, organised and chaired by the secretary-general, the previous secretary-general, my dear friend Kofi Annan. And today I have the pleasure to be with another friend in this panel. Now, you ask me to talk in three minutes about on how do we see the situation. I'll try to put in three minutes a lot of things that have to be said on how th situation is seen."
      [Philippe Mottaz:] "Well we would have more time."
      [Mr Solana:] "Let let me let me start with briefly - and I will make sone sketch of what I would like if possible will develop later with Jeffrey. Well I think that climate change as everybody agrees today is a very fundamental problem. [...]
      (4:55) In the year 2020 we would like to have a reduce of 20 per cent from the Kyoto base. And we want also to have by then, by the 2020, 20 per cent of renewable energies in the total base. Now, these are ideas that we put to the table in order to see if we can find a solution which is collective. Dates: We have in Poland a review conference in 2008 and we have the important Copenhagen summit in 2009. By then we should be able to find a solution.
      (9:40) It is very important what we would find in Copenhagen. Because it is not the end of the day. It is very important that we get something meaningful, binding, clear from Copenhagen
    Professor Sachs, on the other hand, claimed knowing the real issue and the technological solutions for climate change. The following excerpts from the discussion focus on professor Sachs's opinions on growth and technology.
      [Jeffrey Sachs (9:55)] From the point of view of the developing countries their position is very clear. They want the chance to achieve economic development and they don't want any agreement to stand in the way of economic development. From the point of view of climate reality we have to cut emissions at least by half of the current level by 2050 in a world economy we hope will triple or quadruple during that period. So there are global physics' constraints, like our physicists onto my left. Those are realities. There's also absolutely the imperative of finding a way to reduce emissions in a context which allows for economic growth but at the same time commits all countries to low emission technologies. That's the trick.
    ecoglobe> "The "trick" is how to expand on a world that is finite and by all accounts already hugely overloaded and overconsumed.
      [Professor Sachs (11:20)][...] I believe commitments should be for everybody. But the way to get commitments from everybody is not to commit countries to asphyxiate their economies but rather to get commitments by countries to adopt low emission technologies as they become available. It seems to me this is the essence of the entire issue, which is a technological transformation to low emission technology - long distance automobiles, renewable energy sources, carbon capture, sequestration, green buildings - all the technologies where we have a path laid out, to get all countries to adopt those as best practice, best available technologies. And then finally - and I'll stop here - to add that for the poor there are financial transfers to help them to do it and technology transfers to enable them to do it.
    ecoglobe> "Technology" is the word of the modern magician. If you repeat it often enough the technologies will surely come. Except that yet-to-be-invented technology of tomorrow can do nothing today. And when brain-power does not produce those miracle technologies, which can recreate non-renewable resources, revive extinct polar bears or capture and store carbondioxide, then these lauded but non-existing technologies will never do anything.
      [Philippe Mottaz (14:20)] I have a sense that, Mr Solana, your position is actually more encompassing. When you're saying We agree, I agree with Jeffrey Sachs - and a numebr of people do agree with Mr Sachs - you say, but this is not enough. We cannot simply think that technology will solve everything. At least we need to make sure we have a more encompassing approach where politics comes into play. [...]
      [Professor Sachs (15:30)] The problem has to be put in its clear way. For example. The problem is not our electricity use. The problem is the carbon emissions that come from electricity use. It's really important to target specifically what the problem is. And I say that - it may sound like a dumb point - but if we rail energy use we're railing against the wrong thing. If we start with talking about our lifestyle change and so forth you create conflicts that are false conflicts. If we start with lowering emissions you help to clarify what's really at stake here. And I think we don't do ourselves a service when the president of the Maldives yesterday - with a wonderful country and facing a disaster, so all my sympathy. But when he called this a crime I can't agree with that. And the reason is that I think calling it a crime is a big mistake. Carbon dioxide is a side effect of a technology that has been the most transformative technology, modern energy, of all of human history. It is a side effect we've come to appreciate and understand. If we call it a crime or if we go into completely a - what I think leads then to an antagonistic position, we will not reach a global consensus. If we stay on the pragmatic path, how do we get emissions down by half worldwide, in a way which respects the absolute right, need, imperative and political reality of poor countries to develop, then we are going to get somewhere. That's my main point.
    ecoglobe> Professor Sachs is absolutely right in asking to focus on the core issue. Which, however is not finding future technologies. The sissue is applying knowledge and methodologies that we really do have now, today, that are known to reduce emissions now and simultaneously reduce badly needed depletion of non-renewable resources. We can and must slow down, live more frugally, as Mr Ban Ki-Moon said recently. We can re-localise production and consumption. We must restructure, precisely because of the effect of climate change and the imminent times of reduced oil availability. Nature is indifferent to human rights. The earth only knows balances. The human "right" to develop the poor - without compensating contraction of the rich - is increasing the unbalances between human activity and nature.
      [Phillippe Mottaz (17:15)] If I may however. What is striking in your argument it's like either or. Okay. Let's move beyond semantics and saying well, yeah it's a crime.
      But there are different ways of using energy. We will indeed use energy. But can't we already agree that at least - and this is politics again - we can do if only tactically in this absolute necessity to raise awareness of doing a bit better than we're doing now?

      [Professor Sachs (18:15)] [...] now we're trying to ask what can really count arithmetically, because nature counts arithmetically. It actually matters how many parts per million, what we're aiming for and how we're going to achieve it and who is gone a pay for it. That's what I'm talking about. And I'm being a little bit less sentimental because I think we have toi get down to hard numbers and understand what this is about. And the only way we're gonna phenace [still the pain of] this issue is through a series of new technologies. And this brings me to a point where I do think everybody has failed so far. We've spent a tremendous amount of time on the European trading system and debating taxes versus credits and so forth. But we've spent a tiny fraction of the time on mobilising technology, which partly comes through markets but to a much much greater extent also requires a partnership of governments in national laboratories, in demonstration projects, in basic R&D. If we're gonna have carbon capture and sequestration, why don't we have one demonstration plant, anywhere in the world yet? We've wasted a decade in not doing a single demonstration. What about funding for lithium batteries so that we can have plug-in hybrids that get four times the milage that we have. What about... The Spanish industry has wonderful technology for concentrated solar thermal. Let's build some of these, especially in Africa. So that we get the advantage of what will be the true transformative technology in the future. And this is a major missing piece of what we are doing. We're not mobilising technology through technology policy. We're only talking about marketing fixes and tradable permits, we've spent much too much time on that and much too little time on the reality of what we are going to need to get the job done and demonstrating it.
    ecoglobe> ""Hybrids" and "lithium batteries" means believing that we, the rich, can maintain our standard of living and that all poorer people can attain our level of exuberant and wasteful luxury. It means not understanding the fact that our lifestyles cannot be maintained and much less be emulated by the poor. The earth simply does not have the capacity and we are already lving far beyond the planet's carrying capacity. Yet last year professor Sachs's world was "bursting at its seams". If that is the case, shouldn't we then reduce pressure and not expand the economy further yet? Professor Sachs's "true transformative technology" reflects his true belief - an other-worldly belief which denies the reality that this world is finite, hugely overcrowded and overconsuming.
      [Professor Sachs (20:05)] Because it costs money to demonstrate it and the private sector won't do it. And what the commissioner Solana said is absolutely right. We are gonna need to look hard at intellectual property as a core part of the strategy of this going forward, how to transfer IP as part of this. That may be China's number one demand actually, as everything is OK, we agree but we are not gonna pay royalties for your technology. You're gonna transfer it. Then we agree.
      [Philippe Mottaz (20:50)] What I'm trying to say is that I think that your position raises a cultural issue. Isn't that the American model. Isn't faith in technolgy such that it's sort of the mood. There is a great movie called Mars Attack. ... We think the Martians are always friendly but they turn out to be terrible. And I think it's a pretty sound lesson. Aren't we, aren't you or aren't we putting all the eggs in the basket at the expense of finding step by step, with all the difficulties that it would present, a political consensus. We do have to bring in and we know that China and India are not going to come to Kyoto. We know that. But if you were negotiating Mr Sachs, don't you think that indeed the model that you're using here maybe is - doesn't operate as it should. But I'm talking to you as if you were the president of the United States here.
    ecoglobe> Philippe Mottaz asks the right question.
      [Jeffey Sachs (22:00)] Let me say what doesn't operate here. Because I think it's a quite different thing. What doesn't operate is the way the rich world leaves the poor world to die. This is the biggest mistake on the planet. It's not about our lifestyle and this and that. Because there are lots of things to say about that that are very interesting but it is not really the point. The real point on this planet is we can't muster more than .2 or .3 of one percent of our income to help the poorest people in the world and millions die as a result of that and that is the sickness of tour global society right now. That's a very different matter. Again, it's a matter of getting real. It's not your lifestyle, my lifestyle. That's not the point right now. The point is that ten million children will die this year of poverty and we barely lift a finger. And we have massive problems that we have been talking about for two days and I spend all my time trying to raise funds for poor people. I can tell you how hard this is. That's what I do for a living. That's the problem on our planet. Because if we're gonna get real and unsentimental, we should face up to the children dying today and when you go out and make an emergency appeal for food aid it's like you're staring into the face. You can't get money for this food crisis. You can 't get money for the water crisis. You can't get money for the Millennium Development Goals. That's far more important than debating lifestyles right now frankly. Just as a serious matter, in terms of quantification, real effect, real potential, real help for people. That's what we ought to be debating. [Applause].
    ecoglobe> Professor Sachs is changing the issue. General humanitarian aid to people in need of food and water is a different debate.
      [Philippe Mottaz (25:55)] Some people say, adaptation, there's no money in adaptation. And some people say mitigation is too expensive. Right? Wrong? What do you tell people who...? What do you tell the market?

      [Professor Sachs (26:15)] Again, it's a matter of the numbers. If you look seriously at mitgation and all of the technology prospects, it is not too expensive. It looks to be that serious global mitigation - serious, that means getting emissions down by half, while a world economy triples or quadruples, should be feasible within an envelope of one per cent of global income per year. This is a phenomenal fact to understand. It means we can have global development and global growth and a safe climate. We don't have to chose. That's the false choice.
    ecoglobe> It seems a "phenominal" feat to expand the world economy by a factor three or four on a planet that is finite and already facing scarcities and pollution of many kinds.
      But to get there - remember that one per cent of world income today is seven hundred billion dollars a year. It's not a small amount of change. If we were to be properly investing that and continue to invest that we would be able to create a sustainable energy system in the world. So those who like, those such as Bjorn Lomborg or others who say let's focus on adaptation - and pay little attention to it by the way - as opposed to mitigation because it's too expensive, are just dead wrong on the numbers. The numbers are that we're facing a global calamity on a business as usual trajectory. But the costs of getting off of that calamity are small but not self-organising. Markets will not do this alone. And as commissioner Solana just said, markets even with carbon trading or taxes, as I prefer, will never make the technology changes alone. For major social technologies you need large scale public involvement for regulation, public acceptance, demonstration, basic research, monitoring, right of ways. Social transformation doesn't come packaged by markets. Markets are a part of it. The public goods are a part of it. Technology transfer is inherently a public goods matter. So we need... You know how much the United States spent on sustainable energy last year? Three billion dollars. That's 36 hours of Pentagon spending to give you some perspective. That's nothing. We spent 700 billion on the Pentagon. But we spent three billion on sustainable energy technologies. That's why a decade has gone by and we haven't built one carbon capture demonstration plant. Unfortunately Europe is not doing any better on this public spending on R&D. Budgets are tight you know. But when budgets are tight, public goods do not get financed. And when public goods do not get financed we on this planet do not solve problems. That's the beginning and the end of it as far as I am concerned. It's not a huge amount of money. But we better spend one per cent of our income on this or we're gonna face calamities.
    ecoglobe> We will indeed face the calamities. Because the establishment is repeating the same mantras of continued economic expansion and salvation by yet-to-be-invented technologies. Meanwhile the action that we can take, making our societies more frugal, reduce resource consumption and outlaw a multitude of wasteful and harmful activities, slwoing down and relocalistation, as opposed to globalisation, are beyond the scope of the leading compact of Business, Politics and the discipline of Economics.

    Professor Sachs lost himself in his laudable humanitarian focus, thereby completely forgetting that the world is finite and "already bursting at its seams".

    Such surrealistic dreams must be challenged and countered by serious scientific assessment of realistic options. We must discuss the real action that can be taken to avoid further climate change and total resource depletion with ensuing collapse.

    Compare: Growth table

    Conference video

    We briefly met Professor Sachs, the day before this debate. He showed interest in our interview questions - of which we gave him a copy. Unfortunately he had to leave before we could have a serious discussion. In the debate on 25 June Professor Sachs did not show having read or understood our sustainability questions. (ghfg8624.doc)

    Conference Programm 24-25 June Tuesday, 24 June Wednesday, 25 June

    Geneva, 25 June 2005 - Helmut Lubbers ecological psychologist and environmental scientist

    Environmental developments:

  • Increasing resource depletion because of continued population growth and economic expansion (GDP growth).
  • The day of "Peak oil", i.e. the highest daily amount of oil extracted, is approaching. It is expected within one to twenty years. Thereafter petroleum will be used for prioritary applications. Industrial and agricultural production, as well as transportation and mobility will decline and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (compare fossil energy developments)
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