The climate crunch will soon make the credit crunch look trivial, and the G20 summit must tackle it now, writes Greenpeace UK Executive Director John Sauven writes for Comment is free.
This evening, 20 world leaders will gather in Washington, where they will dine at the table of their host, George W Bush, before attempting to perform life-saving surgery on the global economy.
Even in the face of the extraordinary repudiation delivered last week by the American people, Bush is unlikely to use the summit to also reshape the world's response to climate change. But that's exactly what his 19 guests should do.
As the world economy lies on the operating table and the doctors - Sarkozy, Brown et al - gather around, where should they make the first cut? For proponents of a Green New Deal, the answer is simple: we need a shared vision for low-carbon prosperity, not an unstrategic spending splurge and the risk of worse to come because of climate change.
The economic crash and the climate crunch must be viewed as one problem. Lord Stern, former chief economist for the World Bank and author of the 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, observes that the current global economic crisis and climate change share two fundamental elements: both have been years in the making and the world's poorest countries will suffer disproportionately.
He concludes that the longer we delay strong action on global warming, the worse the social and economic consequences will be. Current estimates of the costs are about 2 per cent of GDP per year if immediate action is taken. A 10-year delay could double the annual costs, with the bill eventually coming in at 20 per cent of GDP if no action is taken.
The global economic system is undeniably in intensive care. Seemingly rock-solid financial institutions have either collapsed or have required massive injections of government and taxpayer money. The failed economic system depends on a high-carbon, energy-hungry model. Merely keeping this system on life support before resuscitating it is a recipe for disaster. The expansion or renewal of high-carbon infrastructure in developed countries - building new coal-fired power stations and runways - will make it virtually impossible for us to perform the necessary decarbonising surgery on our economy in the coming years and decades.
Without such an operation - one that cuts out unabated fossil-fuel electricity production and slashes CO2 emissions from heating and transport - carbon emissions will not fall fast enough to stabilise the climate. Without those huge reductions, growing climate instability threatens to create huge social and economic instability and political conflict. As Lord Stern dryly notes, high-carbon growth will choke off growth. Current uncertainties in global credit, equity and commodity markets are no excuse for inaction on climate change.
The situation we find ourselves in is an opportunity for the developed world, economies in transition, and poorer countries alike to change course fundamentally. Short-term economic security must not be bought at the cost of the climate. The future lies in building low-carbon prosperity.
According to the International Energy Agency, investment in world energy infrastructure over the next 20 years will average approximately $1tn a year. It is only possible to spend this money once; it is crucial that this investment is in low-carbon technology.
The Washington meeting can start by delivering a global recovery plan founded on long-term investment in our energy sector. Priorities include energy efficiency, energy infrastructure (notably regional or "decentralised" energy systems where energy is generated close to point of use) and renewable energy technologies. As well as protecting us from future crises through tackling climate change, such a recovery plan would deliver jobs, reduced reliance on fossil fuels and lower bills through energy efficiency.
While the bulk of the economic activity will take place in the private sector, the leverage of public sector investment in setting the trajectory of that investment must not be underestimated. This kind of investment can only take place in a relatively secure political and regulatory climate, with clear objectives and incentives to reduce emissions dramatically by 2020 and for virtual decarbonisation by 2050. By contrast, high-carbon investment in industries such as unabated coal need to be exposed to their true economic liabilities. The cost to the planet of emissions from a single UK coal-fired power station amounts to around $400m a year. Let the owners of those plants pay the true cost of its operation, and then let's see if they continue to push for new unabated plants.
As President-elect Barack Obama has said of the climate crisis, "It is absolutely critical that we understand this is not just a challenge, it's an opportunity. It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades."