Survival in the Anthropocene

 Reith Lecture 2, Peking University Beijing – 18 April 2007

Notes  of Lecture given by

Jeffrey Sachs

Sue Lawley: last week, JS set the scene for his argument that all the world’s great powers can and must cooperate if our planet is not to descend into disease-ridden, poverty-stricken devastation. Nowhere is more important in this process than China, with 1.3 billion people, now becoming a global power of enormous influence and strength. China’s great leap forward has already come at a price, not least in the damage to its environment – it’s still a one-party state without democratic elections, and many in the West believe you can’t play a full part on the world stage till issues of individual liberty and human rights have been addressed. Peking University (yes, that’s still its name) has a reputation in China for revolutionary thinking. Many of its students are in the audience, along with academics, journalists and businessmen who will discuss the issues later.

Jeffrey Sachs: it’s a thrill to be there with them, taking part in a global discussion we must have

if peace and prosperity are to be shared across the planet this century. We face obvious risks and huge opportunities. China calls for superlatives in every way – in its role, dimensions and stakes for itself and the world. They’re in the magnificent Hall of the 10,000 Masses tonight. For all of China to be there, they’d need 130,000 halls of 10,000 people in each. One fifth of the world’s population, quickly becoming an epicentre of the world’s economy. It’s one of the world’s most crowded, and most environmentally-stressed countries.

The Anthropocene is a spectacularly vivid term, invented by Paul Kreutsen /’kru:tsin/ "one of the great scientists of our age" to signify that human beings for the first time are now affecting the physical systems of the planet – we’re in the human-created epic (sic) of the world’s history. Geologists call this period (the last 13,000 years since the last Ice Age) the Holocene. Kreutsen argues that the Anthropocene began 200 years ago – the period when human activity overtook parts of the vast natural cycles on the planet in ways that derange the cycles and threaten us in the years ahead. We face a dual challenge: how to achieve economic progress in the developing world and maintain well-being in the already developed while confronting the profound and growing environmental dangers.

The puzzle we need to solve is how to achieve our ends in some new and different way: what we are doing is unsustainable. Literally. We couldn’t go on using resources the way we now do on the scale we now do without causing total collapse. And we don’t want to stop where we are – the developing world (five-sixths of humanity) want what the rest of us already have: the same income, comfort, safety and life-expectancy levels that we have. As a Development Economist, he is thrilled by what is now happening – an Age of Convergence, with the adaptation of advanced technologies raising living standards across the world (the subject of another lecture). China is in the forefront of that catching-up. The world economy is now growing at about 5% per annum. And we’re about to see an enormous increase in economic activity. If the processes of Convergence continue to operate as in recent decades, the average per capita income of people worldwide could well increase four times by 2050. Population, increasing more slowly in proportional terms than in the 2nd half of the 20th century, is still increasing by 70-80 million a year. On the UN’s medium-term forecast, that would mean another 2.5 billion people by 2050. From the point of view of Economic Development, there would be 6 times more economic activity by 2050, on those projections.

We’re asking an already severely stressed planet to absorb many times more its current levels. It would be impossible – environmental catastrophes would choke-off the economic growth - hardships in water stress, deforestation, hunger, species extinction. Many people think all that can "give" are the living standards of the Rich in the high-income world; others think we are bound for a bitter struggle between Rich and Poor. JS argues that there is one peaceful way forward which allows for the aspirations of catching-up and continued improvements in living standards worldwide while "squaring the circle" of environmental stress and economic development.

What can we do? There are at least three ways out of the conundrum.

  1. fuel and energy efficiency. More output for less use of fossil fuels.
  2. substitute non-fossil for fossil fuel to reduce CO2 emissions – eg nuclear power safely deployed, more economical solar power, wind or biomass.
  3. learn to use existing fossil fuels safely. For China and India this is the single most important hope, for them and for the planet. Carbon capture from power stations, pumped into pipelines and so to safe reservoirs in the earth.

Can we do it? Can we get the necessary level of Political Consensus, Public Understanding, direction and determination. We may fake it with nice speeches, but the climate will change whether we fake it or not. There’s no spinning this one.

One hopeful analogy: how we avoided the desperate risk of Ozone depletion. It was Paul Kreutsen who discovered that challenge, with two colleagues – they found by chance that the chemicals used for refrigeration (chloro-fluoro-carbons/CFCs) were depleting the ozone in the atmosphere. It took time for the public and politicians to get past denial and take it seriously: a satellite picture by NASA turned the tide, showing the hole in the ozone layer; "maybe the picture that saved the world". People stopped listening to the Chairman of Dupont and started thinking about survival – their own, and that of their children. The pressure for action increased, and Dupont and others funded research on alternatives to CFCs. When they were found, the companies whispered to the politicians and that an International Agreement would be okay – it took about 15 years from the basic science to the international treaty. By 1990 a global framework was in place and we have at least relative safety from that risk.

There are hopes it will be the same with Climate now, though it’s a much more difficult issue. It requires a basic change in how we operate the core global economy – in infrastructure and energy systems. But the change is already on the way. First came the basic science, back in 1896 then in the last 25 years – followed by the companies protesting about "junk science" – followed by evidence supporting the science and public awareness of that: the heat wave in Europe in 2003 claimed over 20,000 lives – hurricane Katrina in 2005 shocked Americans and the world – a mega drought in Australia this year destroyed much of the export crop – massive typhoons in China and warming and droughts in much of the interior – all have made Climate Change an immediate and understandable issue. The good news is that engineers and scientists are now developing alternative technologies – carbon capture and sequestration, non-fossil fuel energy sources, breakthroughs in energy efficiency like hybrid fuel cars. Companies are again telling politicians "we can handle this – need an incentive mechanism and price structure to enable us to move ahead…"

In December 2007, in Bali Indonesia, negotiations will start for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. Greenhouse gases must be stabilised. The Kyoto Protocol was much too limited; the new agreement must include the US, China, India and the rest of the world. This is not a matter of Vested Interest but of Common Interest.

This will be the characteristics of the Anthropocene: Science-based, global policy-making based on world-wide public awareness. From Science to Public Awareness to Technological Alternatives, to International Agreements – those are the steps needed for all aspects of the Anthropocene. It will be true for saving the Rain Forests, the Oceans (from over-fishing), for managing Water Stress, and choosing sound Population alternatives. We can do this, and learn that the costs of action are tiny compared to the risks of inaction.

According to the best estimates, Climate Change can be managed for less than 1% of world income each year, maybe much less. Business as usual would cost devastating losses of several per cent of world income.

He ends where he began his first lecture, with his favourite speech by John Kennedy: he spoke of the Challenge of Peace, the biggest challenge on the planet – it too is threatened by environmental risk. He also said our problems are manmade and can be solved by man. Man can be as big as he wants: "man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again." That is the spirit of the Anthropocene.

Question Time:

Yu Yang-zhing (3rd year economics student) to what extent should we protect the environment? How can the optimal balance between that and economic development be found?

JS thinks the common phrase "economic development versus the environment" is largely mistaken. The environment is part of economic well-being. Choices faced on how to use land, how to fish and use energy resources are less painful if we look closely at real opportunities, especially technological ones. He spoke about adopting sustainable energy systems in the lecture. Another opportunity – China is the pioneer of aqua-culture: massive fish-farming, designed to prevent the over-fishing of the oceans. China has 80-90% of the world’s fish-farming now. That gives grounds for hope.

Man: millions of people in China see hope in economic development – how can they be persuaded otherwise? JS don’t tell them not to achieve economic development – and don’t tell Americans their income levels will be deeply undermined. Mobilise science and technology to demonstrate that new technologies can allow for wise choices. If we are too afraid, neglectful, radically greedy or simple-mindedly short-sighted, the dangers will mount well beyond the cost of clear action now.

James King (British writer, has lived and worked in the Far East for 25 years; currently heads business operations of Pearson, an International Media Company) - JS painted a picture of global environmental melt-down and Public Advocacy as an important part of arresting that. In China, people are not given their voice – there’s a very top-down government; at central level, there is a keen understanding of environmental issues but often at local level governments are corrupt, in bed with big, polluting companies. Will China ever allow enough pluralism, public advocacy and democracy to solve the environmental problems he outlined. JS thinks it’s very likely because the problems are not hidden from view: the massive air pollution in Chinese cities, people along the Yangtze live with the problems – very soon, the world will be pointing at China as the Number One emitter of CO2. The US will then start complaining bitterly, "you’re affecting our climate." It’s being felt in daily lives. He’s had excellent discussion with the Chinese leadership in recent years. They are fully aware of all that. And even in the US there has been remarkable change in the last year – two "forces of nature" have contributed, Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore – "once you get Oscars for Climate Change, you know we’re on our way".

James King agreed that the Central Government "have a big handle on this" but what he and other journalists have seen at local level is that they do not obey the government – they are corrupt, thinking about their own short-term profits and not the planet at all.

A woman spoke of a friend who reports for Chinese TV. One day they went to a County in /Gweizhou/ where mining is done. Central government sent people to close down small, illegal mines – but the whole county’s income depended on those mines, so they opened again the day after they’d been closed.

Ma Jun (head of a Research Organisation in China, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs) – said he appreciated JS’s call for better global Environmental Governance. His institute runs a National Water Pollution database – recent figures for polluters showed 60-70 international companies (from Japan, the US and Europe) among them, violating pollution standards. Some Western companies argue that if local companies are polluting, multinationals cannot be blamed for doing the same in China. JS accepted all those points, and they need to be seen as part of a new, dynamic process. It’s part of the fight for a new way of doing things – market forces by themselves are often powerful and also short-sighted: they don’t include the social damage that goes along with polluting. resource-depleting activities. There is a need for countervailing activities, and the change won’t come overnight. It will take decades.

Sue Lawley said it was an issue of Double Standards – multinationals doing their dirty work in China – devious Western entrepreneurs bringing their toxic waste here. How can we expect cooperation from China in those circumstances?

JS doesn’t want to speak of "double standards", there are poor environmental standards all over the world. Nowhere is truly environmentally sustainable and the whole world’s climate is being changed. But there is also a great rise in global understanding of that fact. He predicts that by 2010 we’ll have a post-Kyoto agreement which includes all countries, agreed to serious targets about heading off environmental catastrophe. (Sue Lawley repeated, in a tone of incredulity, in 3 years India, China and the US will all agree to such targets? And he repeated what he’d said, with some irritation – she pricked him to irritation at the end of his 4th lecture too.) "I don’t know it, I’m predicting it" on the basis of his basic argument: that issues move from Science to Public Awareness to Technological Options to International Agreements. We’re in that phase right now on Climate Change. Every major US Presidential candidate will have a strong Climate Change policy – major oil companies are running advertisements every day on the dangers of Climate Change. Something has changed for the better.

Jonathan Watts (Southeast Asia correspondent, The Guardian) said he’d recently returned from /Lingfin/ which has for five years been the most polluted city on the planet. Its local government said they will close 160 of the 189 iron foundries there. Many local people don’t believe their government or trust the media. Some people said they were afraid to speak to the foreign journalists. They don’t like the pollution but can’t change anything. China is still a one-party dictatorship – wouldn’t it be better to have a green dictatorship than a green democracy? What’s the role of public accountability in improving the environment in China?

JS the problem of Local Economy is extremely important – dependent on a probably defunct technology. It’s a tough problem anywhere. But the status quo is unsustainable. You need either alternatives to retrofit factories, to provide compensation for environmental adjustment – and China doesn’t have the institutions and instruments necessary to offer all that as the awareness and the problems are new there. JW said he was avoiding the issue of Democracy in China – NGOs would like more tools, such as their western colleagues have, for advocacy. JS thinks China will become more Democratic and Decentralised in time; he already sees developments in the right direction. Outsiders making simple claims are not helpful. Solving China’s political problems is something for the Chinese people to do. The world needs to help them meet their goals, and build trust and understanding and a framework to allow change to take place in a peaceful, useful way.

Notes by Alison Williams (from Radio Broadcast)

The Lectures are probably BBC copyright