Davos 2015: Six steps to sustainable economic growth

The World Economic Forum in Davos hosted an all-star panel tasked with laying out their plans for for creating economic growth in a sustainable manner while adhering to a 2C global warming target.

Featuring Unilever CEO Paul Polman, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and chaired by IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, the panel discussed their suggestions for how businesses and governments could set the global economy onto a low-carbon pathway at Paris 2015 and beyond. (Scroll down for video).

1) Pick off the low-hanging fruit

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim pointed out that there were simple decisions that could save money as well as the climate. He said more sustainable transport and improved energy efficiency could save between $1.8trn and $2.6trn.

That sentiment seemed to strike a chord with the head of susainability at Marks & Spencer, Mike Barry, who has overseen the UK firm’s groundbreaking Plan A intitiative.

2) Environmental decisions can be economic decisions

Several of the panel made the point that, similar to energy efficiency, climate-friendly decisions were also good fiscally beneficial, referencing a report by the New Climate Group.

The impacts of unmitigated climate change – floods, droughts and other extreme weather – can disrupt supply chains and destroy properties, running business losses into the billion.

Conversely, Polman noted that Unilever relied on green energy in Europe and the USA, without it impacting profits.

“I can have my cake and eat it too,” said the Unilever CEO.

3) Enforce a carbon price

The panel agreed that an international carbon price was the best way to force markets to account for climate change.

Kim said: “A carbon price will account for actual costs and incentivise efforts around the kind of technology which can eventually take carbon out of the air.”

His peers agreed. 

4) End fossil fuel subsidies

Falling oil prices offer an opportunity, said the panel, to end fossil fuel subsidies, and move the cash towards reneweable technologies like solar and wind.

Paul Polman said that between $600m- $1trn was spent globally on carbon fuel subsidies, supporting a toxic technology when the money could be easily re-allocated .

Lagarde suggested that ending oil subsidies in the US alone would free up $2trn.

5) Invest in sustainable infrastructure

Polman pointed out that with $90trn forecast to be spent on rebuilding global infrastructure over the next 15 years, a simple decision would be to pick ‘the low carbon pathway’, such as smart cities.

The UN secretary-general echoed this, saying: “Infrastructure and sustainability are treated separately, we need to address this – they are two sides of the same coin.”

6) There is no time to lose

Michael Spence a business professor at NYU said: “We have to go very quickly – we have a window of a very small number of years, after which we cannot win the battle to mitigate fast enough to meet safety goals.”

He pointed out that developing nations could triple the value of the world economy in the next 30 years, and that such economic growth would come with an unimaginable emissions price tag.

VIDEO: Watch the full panel discussion 

Brad Allen

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