Book Review: Blueprint for a Safer Planet by Nicholas Stern
Nicholas Stern’s 2006 eponymous report has been credited with taking the climate change debate out of academic and green circles and into the ‘real world’ of economics (given what has happened to the world economy since, there is some irony in it being seen as more ‘real’ than the piece of rock we’re all sat on). This book builds on that report to present a way forward to “a new era of progress and prosperity” as the tagline of the book would have it. It is clearly written for the benefit of those attending or sending delegations to the crucial Copenhagen COP15 conference later this year which will attempt to form a post-Kyoto international climate change agreement.
Stern’s main point is that climate change is market failure on a grand scale. By fixing the market – putting a realistic price on the value of carbon and providing an effective trading mechanism – the economy can decarbonise itself, protect forests and go some way to dealing with global inequalities. It is the first point which is most controversial. Stern argues that to discount future costs of climate change is unethical despite it being common practice for most forms of investment (discounting accounts for the fact that if I offered you £10 today or £11 next year, you’d probably take the tenner right now). This is a question I naively asked 10 years ago on an academic environmental economics forum. I sat back while several eminent contributors started slinging increasingly puerile insults at each other across the ether, and unsurprisingly Stern got quite a bit of stick for this aspect of his original report. Personally, I’m with him on this – if we’re going to take the intergenerational equality aspect of sustainable development seriously, then we can’t discount the negative impacts that later generations are going to face.
My only criticism of the book is its readability. The sentences are long and have multiple subclauses, the paragraphs are rarely enlivened by either bullet points or metaphors and there is a lack of recap or summary at key places to help the reader. The chapter on ethics and discounting is particularly poor on this front which is a shame as this is where the reader needs to concentrate most. While this may not be a problem for the two-brained bureaucrats it is aimed at, it turned what should have been a very informative read into a real chore. I’ve since read Vince Cable’s excellent book on the current economic situation (“The Storm“) in a fraction of the time and retained much more of the content.
So, overall, this is an exceedingly important contribution to tackling climate change and it should be on the reading list for everyone involved in COP15. It’s just a shame it wasn’t more accessible for the rest of us.