DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And in these last days of 2013 we've been having conversations about the future. Rather than grand predictions, we've been seeking a realistic assessment of what lies ahead. So far we've explored cybersecurity, we've looked at the changing electorate. When it comes to climate change, the topic for today, Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute told my colleague Steve Inskeep that the trends don't look very good.
ANDREW STEER: And I don't want to imply we are heading in the right direction. We are not. We're heading in the wrong direction at the moment. We're heading for three degrees Celsius, four degrees Celsius.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You're talking about the increase in the average global temperature.
STEER: It's the increase in the average temperature, and associated with that, of course, a lot more extreme weather events which we're seeing already. Associated with that will be a, you know, perhaps a one meter rise in sea level. And most cruel of all associated with that, shifts in rain patterns. And so add these together and agricultural yields in poor areas of Africa will fall by 30 percent.
And these farmers today can't even hardly eke out a living as it is.
GREENE: So Steer says that's the future if nothing changes. The big question now is how to change the incentives, how to persuade like-minded companies or countries to join together and act. Years ago, environmentalists hoped a global climate treaty would help, but Andrew Steer acknowledges negotiations are moving very slowly.
STEER: Look, it would be nice if all the countries would get together and just agree. And they're unlikely to do that in an ambitious way. So what's happening at the moment is there are a number of really interesting coalitions - coalitions of countries, coalitions of the private sector. So, for example, look at the Consumer Goods Forum.
The Consumer Goods Forum is basically saying we're going to do things differently. We're going to...
INSKEEP: Who are they?
STEER: They're a group of the leading consumer manufacturers, the Unilevers, the retailers like Wal-Mart and Nestle. And they're saying, look, we want to get together. We want to be the good guys. We want to actually take carbon emissions out of our supply chain. We want to stop buying oil palm that leads to deforestation.
So organizations like the World Resources Institute, that I'm responsible for overseeing, we help them with tools, for example, where we map exactly what's happening on deforestation. So you're able to say, right, am I purchasing things that actually are hurting climate change? These kinds of coalitions in turn can raise the spirit and the raise the probability that a global deal will be done.
INSKEEP: If you're a corporate executive who's responsible to stockholders, not to the globe or even to a country, what are the incentives you see right now for getting involved in that kind of activity?
STEER: Consumers are increasingly wanting companies to do the right thing. And there are...
INSKEEP: It's the image thing. Its public relations.
STEER: Well, almost so because - so the moral thing. I mean the reason that I recycle is not for my image. It's because I actually think it's the right thing to do. And, so too, shareholders. I mean there are groups of shareholders, especially the institutional investors, the pension funds and so on that say: Actually, we think we can earn just a higher return from the good companies, for a portfolio that's honorable.
It's interesting now. I mean why is it that 86 percent of the Fortune 500 companies report their greenhouse gas emissions? The reason they do it - not because they to - is because shareholders are demanding that they do.
INSKEEP: At the same time, aren't there disincentives still going toward cleaner forms of energy? They're more expensive, to put it very simply.
STEER: Well, investing in renewable energy can be perceived to be more risky. What we've found is actually, if you look at the cost of renewable energy and compare it to the cost of traditional energy, they're about the same in many regards. But you have to put more money up front at the beginning. If you build a solar power plant, you know, you spend the money and then it's almost free. As opposed to a coal power plant, you build a factory and then you have to keep paying for the coal.
So the profile of investment is different. So these are all disincentives. And what we need to do is figure ways to encourage investors to take those additional risks. And, of course, it is happening. I mean last year, almost $300 billion around the world was invested in renewable energy. And so, about half of that was in the developing and emerging world and half of it in the rich world.
INSKEEP: I guess there are other ways to attack global warming. You can capture carbon - carbon sequestration. You can just have less economic activity. You can make everybody drive less. You can make everybody live in a smaller house and use less energy. But there seems to be disincentives and costs to every one of those options right now.
STEER: Well, it's actually very encouraging. If you look at a country like China, which is obviously the leader in urbanization right now; I was there a couple of weeks ago. What they're saying is: Look, we want to see whether or not it is true that if you actually moved towards more environmentally-friendly cities, what will that do to your competitiveness?
The evidence is there is a win-win sweet spot there; that actually, low-carbon cities are more competitive, they're more livable, they attract more investment, and they're altogether better for the quality of life. So what China is doing now is having a series of pilot low-carbon cities. And this year, China is introducing a cap and trade system on greenhouse gases. And they plan to go national by 2015. And the question is why; they don't have to. There's no global agreement.
They're doing it because they actually think it would be good for them.
INSKEEP: Andrew Steer, thanks for coming by.
STEER: Thank you.
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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.