As perils of climate change become increasingly apparent, it is time for affected countries and regions to join the battle against this human-induced crisis, says Jeffrey D. Sachs, economics professor who is also SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Advocate for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and president of UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Sachs, an expert on poverty alleviation, financial crises and economic reforms, believes India, along with China and other BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia and South Africa, should lead the fight against climate change. Interview by Joe C. Mathew.
Climate change is real. Are our measures adequate? What needs to be done?
We have been sleepwalking with the climate crisis for decades. We are already well above 1.2 degree celsius than the pre-industrial era. It will very likely exceed 1.5 degree celsius within a decade. This is very serious. The Framework Convention On Climate Change (1) was signed 31 years ago but never implemented properly. No government should have doubt how serious this is going to be for disruption in daily life of countless number of people. India will be very deeply affected because temperatures are reaching unbelievable and unlivable levels. (2) I believe India knows this requires a dramatic change in energy systems as fast as possible, and on behalf of India’s vulnerable population, the entire world has to make a move now, quickly.
India is going solar but has not given up coal. There are others who are thinking of returning to coal, even if temporarily. These decisions are driven by practical compulsions. How will this help?
Countries should make a serious plan to de-carbonise by mid-century. China has a plan. The U.S. needs one. Latin America also needs a serious plan by 2050. Africa uses few fossil fuels, so it needs to develop in a clean way. By 2050, every region of the world should have a clear plan. U.S. enacted some legislation last year for tax credits but without any plan (for de-carbonisation). This is a mindset problem. We need plans at national level. I would like to see India’s de-carbonisation plans. Incidentally, one of India’s points over last 30 years has been that it can do more but needs finance. And that is my job at U.N. I agree that energy transformation depends on two things — good plans and adequate financing. The third point is that we need regional and global scale solutions. We need to transport power over long distances, not only within countries, and that means strong international cooperation and infrastructure. And this is why I am upset about U.S. probably having blown up the Nord Stream pipeline. It’s not a good idea to blow up international infrastructure just when we need it.
India is hosting G20 presidency. Last year, it was Indonesia. Brazil and South Africa are next in line. This means emerging economies heading G20 for four straight years. Will that provide an opportunity to talk peace?
Host presidencies should appreciate how much the world power has shifted. Maybe the mindset hasn’t shifted as much but BRICS (3) today is larger economically than G7 (4). Still, G7 calls so many shots in political discourse and war, peace and environmental issues. It is time for BRICS to say we are the biggest group, we represent a far larger part of humanity and we have some ideas about a multi-polar world. Building a multi-polar world requires the following steps. First, stop your (U.S.-Russia) fighting, stop 20th century battles in 21st century, stop NATO expansion and stop military alliances. Second, reform the global financial architecture in such a way that it is not based on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington (where World Bank and IMF are headquartered) but is truly global. The large emerging economies should convey this. I think BRICS is the powerful group that can say this.
What makes you so confident about India?
There is real dynamism in India in digital and renewable energy. Some giants with a lot of money are playing in these spaces. They understand future lies in renewable energy and want to be a big part of that.
Pandemic is also impacting global economic growth. How can we prepare better for future outbreaks?
I chaired Lancet Covid-19 Commission. We are still waiting to know whether the pandemic came out of laboratory or nature. It is more likely to have originated out of lab than nature. So, I am still waiting to find out the real source of this pandemic. You may have further incidents like this. One thing we know is that a lot of dangerous and unregulated lab work is going on. So, one of the sure lessons of the pandemic is — stop this unregulated genetic manipulation of pathogens. And U.S., which is funding a lot of it, needs to come clean on what it is doing.
As you said, India has been highlighting the need for climate finance to support efforts of developing countries. What should the developed world do for climate finance?
Developing countries should build up a multilateral banking system. BRICS has New Development Bank. BRICS should operate it at 10 times the current scale. BRICS and Saudi Arabia should put a lot of money into African Development Bank so that Africa can do the same thing. I wouldn’t necessarily wait in Washington. Washington doesn’t move anymore. Emerging economies represent the big majority of population and economy. U.S. and Europe are stuck in the past. Bigger multilateral development banks must be the answer. Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank should be able to do a lot. I would like to see India and China work closely on this. I hope both can put border disputes behind them. World will follow if the two are together.
Economic growth projections by almost all international agencies suggest India is among the most resilient nations in the world today. What is driving this growth? Is it sustainable?
India has been on a very dynamic growth track. Many large-scale transformations are taking place. India has become the fastest-growing large economy in the world and will keep this title for several years to come. It is making major investments in infrastructure and digital services. Government is achieving important advances in key infrastructure sectors. And when I speak to business community, they are pleased with what they are seeing.
How bad is the economic impact of climate change globally?
It is going to lead to a lot of human suffering. That is the main point. Every year, we have climate crises. Every year, we have people dying in heat waves, every year we have floods, droughts and dislocations. We have regional famines. We have been stuck with this for decades. We need to take mitigation measures and make big investments in resilience and social justice to ensure people are not without water or place to survive the massive heat wave. Technology will continue to evolve, improvements in healthcare, living standards will continue, but there will be a lot of pain unless we get our heads around the reality of this (climate change). We are already in the middle of this battle. We are still not organised for it. Again, in U.S., it is weird that we have massive hurricanes, we need emergency help, but we are not for climate action. It is terrible politics to pretend that reality is not what it is. It is too late to pretend.
How many countries have started looking at mainstreaming sustainable development seriously?
The closest was Europe with its European Green Deal. This war, which broke out nine years ago when western governments overthrew Ukraine’s government and Russia took Crimea, has been disorienting. Europe was moving in the right direction and still could move in the right direction. I think China and India, the two giants, can accelerate change. U.S. acts with one arm tied behind its back because our oil, gas and coal lobbies are politically very influential.
Russia-Ukraine war seems to have put climate action on the back burner and made global growth uncertain. How serious is the situation?
This war is not good for any of us. It is not good for Ukraine, it’s not good for world economy, it’s not good for sustainable development. Russia and U.S. are fighting the old cold war. Both are stubborn. I put a lot of responsibility for the war on U.S. as it was triggered by an absolutely misguided idea of expanding NATO to Ukraine. It is threatening the whole world. We should not accept geopolitics as it is right now. I am hoping that India, together with other major countries such as China, Brazil and South Africa, tells Russia and U.S. they need to end this war. I hope India, China and others can convince both the sides.