Sticking To Paris Agreement Could Save The World $20 Trillion

The transition between an ice melange and an open fjord in East Greenland, taken during a recent flyover as part of Operation IceBridge. NASA/Joe MacGregor

You probably don’t need reminding that the Paris agreement is the world’s best hope, at present, for derailing the unrelenting march of anthropogenic climate change. A new Nature paper on the subject reminds us that preventing future meteorological and environmental turmoil isn’t the only benefit it’ll bring us – potentially $20 trillion in savings by 2100 could be ours too.

Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford University and an expert in the socioeconomic impacts of environmental change, is the study's lead author. In line with many others, he tells IFLScience that it’s “very unlikely” that without far more aggressive decarbonization steps, the 2°C (3.6°F) upper warming limit will be met.

“Most studies suggest that we're going to have to have net negative emissions by about mid-century, which means we definitely need technologies that can pull carbon out of the air,” he stresses. This means that sticking to the lower 1.5°C (2.7°F) “requires a lot of technology that we don't yet have.”

Indeed, our ability to geoengineer the climate, through blocking sunlight or (preferably) trapping skyward greenhouse gases underground, remain concepts at best. A combination with more stringent carbon-cutting plans by signatories to the Paris agreement, however, bring with them something everyone – even the most politically conservative types – can understand: money.

The percentage gain in GDP per capita in 2100 if we stick to the 1.5C limit. We don't avoid all damages, but things look a lot better in this optimistic future. Marshall Burke

The economic benefits of climate change action are surprisingly clear, even if the numbers remain somewhat broad estimates. Project Drawdown, a recent analysis of each practical solution to climate change, finds that even moderate expansions in solar farms and nuclear power bring substantial economic benefits.

The reasons vary, but increasingly cheap running costs and less socioeconomic and environmental damages results in monetary savings. Burke et al.’s new paper attempts to calculate the country and global economic impacts of sticking to the goals of the Paris agreement, and the final figures are certainly eye-catching.

Using economic projections, historical records, damage data related to climate change-linked phenomena, and future climate change projections, the team find that the world has a 60 percent chance of saving over $20 trillion if it sticks to the lower warming limit. At the same time, 90 percent of the planet’s population have a 75 percent chance of experiencing significantly reduced economic damages.

This figure includes the wealthiest of nations – the US, China, and Japan – but importantly, poorer countries will stand to benefit the most, particularly those in the tropics and sub-tropics where the mercury is already unsustainably high. Certainly, study after study shows that the world’s poorest countries, and indeed the poorest communities in any country, will suffer the greatest as a result of climate change – despite, of course, driving it the least.

Although unequally, climate change nevertheless threatens everyone, and this paper is another piece of evidence that shows fighting it benefits everyone in a variety of ways. It’s not perfect, though; estimating economic savings isn’t exactly easy.

“There are definitely a lot of uncertainties, and we can only quantify some of them well,” Burke explains. He explains that their approach doesn’t allow them to explore or consider unprecedented events. If new mitigation or defensive technologies arise, the calculated benefits are too large; if there’s a sudden sea level rise, the figures are too small.

These values, then, are well-reasoned best guesses. Considering that we don’t appear to be that great at dealing with or adapting to climate change just yet, the team have a hunch that their values are underestimates.

At present, the vast majority of Americans – and the planet – accept that the climate is changing dangerously and that we are the (by far) leading cause of it. Naysayers, particularly those in the Trump administration, often claim that the cost of acting on climate change is too great, without pointing out the benefits.

Regardless of the precise figures - which will no doubt be debated by economists for some time - it’s increasingly clear that decarbonization brings with it major economic benefits, as well as all the more heavily discussed others. This is how studies like this prove to be most useful: They remind everyone that fighting this gathering storm has no downside, even when it comes to people’s wallets.

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