Development economist Jeffrey Sachs, famous for the economic turnarounds he’s helped engineer as an advisor to Latin American and Eastern European governments, is also known for his optimism that the living standards of the world’s poorest can be raised much higher without sacrificing either the wealth of the industrialized world or crucial natural resources. But among analysts of global change, optimism is relative. “I believe that there is most likely a path of sustainable development, but we can’t quite be sure,” Sachs told a sold-out lecture hall at the London Zoo last night. “It’s a question mark.”
Sachs spoke on big themes from his new book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, notably the need for expansion beyond market-based thinking to face problems not dreamt of in Adam Smith’s philosophy. Before and after this rousing overview (if you’d bet ahead of time that Sachs would quote John F. Kennedy at length, you’d have won), I had the chance to get some nittier, grittier details on how Sachs wants to deal with climate change.
More and better government investment in foreign aid and green tech is the number-one key for Sachs – only the US presidential turnover seemed to run a close second, and cap-and-trading was off in the distance. So he didn’t hesitate to offer a laundry list of projects that he thinks need much more political commitment – among them carbon capture and storage, passively heated and cooled green buildings, and super duper climate computers.
Technological solutions often raise ownership problems, though. If, for example, the agrobiotech industry produces new ‘climate-proof’ crop varieties that survive floods and droughts – an innovation Sachs welcomed at a recent climate modelling summit – can the developing world afford to buy the seeds?
“One of the things we’ve learned from the battle over access to anti-retroviral medicines,” Sachs said – and this was a battle he himself fought – “is that it’s possible to create hybrid systems where you have intellectual property rights applied mainly in the high-income markets and you have access at the cost of production, or on a no-profit basis, in the poor countries.”
In the case of African food shortages, he added, simple, readily available remedies like chemical fertilizers and high-yield non-GMO crops had been “sitting on the shelf” until the global food price crisis grabbed headlines. We shouldn’t have to wait for disasters before we take the equivalent action on climate change, he said.
What about politics? Since Sachs’s talk didn’t go much beyond sighing relief at Bush’s departure, I asked him afterward about his hopes for the upcoming G8 conference in July. More dubious optimism here: “There are a lot of things I’d hope for. That doesn’t mean I’m expecting much to happen.”
Honoring commitments to monetary aid and technology transfer is the first step, he told me. To get a global climate agreement out of the UN process, he also thinks we need to start by welcoming the economic growth of rapidly developing nations like China and India. “That’s the icebreaker on this first date,” he said. From that viewpoint, country-specific emissions targets can be set that correspond to growth along the greenest possible paths.
By 2050, he explained, that might mean that the North cuts its greenhouse emissions by 80% while India’s emissions are allowed to double – a contraction-and-convergence plan. Because China and India have even more to fear from climate change than does the wealthier world, he said, it’s an ultimatum they’ll have to accept: “You’re going to develop. But you’re going to do it with the best technology.”
Photo: Sachs working in the Millennium Village of Mwandama, Malawi.