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A Stern dose of economic reality at Abu Dhabi energy summit

Guardian Environment 19th January 2009

It's time for bone-shaking warnings from the economists, environmental activists and scientists about the dangers of tackling climate change so languidly.

It's hard to think that anyone in the main conference room - it really is like a giant tent with its 40-foot black curtains – really needs reminding of all this.

Lord Stern, writer of the UK government's climate change report, gives us both barrels ending with the reassuring message that "high carbon growth will kill itself".

That suicide reference is another way of saying reliance on oil and coal use is unsustainable because it will incinerate the planet.

He repeats his view that the financial cost of doing nothing is vastly more expensive than taking action. It could cost possibly $2 trillion annually to put a new system of renewable energy in place but says by 2050 the global gross domestic product could be $100tn. What is vital in the short term is to establish some kind of robust carbon price and to ensure that those who do pollute pay the price.

That is an interesting comment since next up on the podium is Vivienne Cox, chief executive of BP Alternative Energy. The only woman in a sea of men, Cox argues that it's time to pull down the barriers and make sure industry and politicians work together. I'm not sure what that means either, presumably it refers to something to do with ministers getting their hands in their pockets and forking out for trial-carbon capture and storage projects to take place.

Later Cox tells me that money for new projects, even inside BP, is tighter to get hold of after a collapsing crude price and the wider economic downturn that has encouraged it. She says we will have to wait till February to hear how much overall BP budgets have been cut back and is not game for explaining how investing in high-carbon tar sands fits with clean projects. She repeats the view, much heard before, that the world needs all forms of energy in the short-term.

Neither is Lord Stern up for blaming BP. He meant everyone should pay more for carbon fuels: "It's not fair to point the finger at one particular company or a group of companies," he says chivalrously.

But two interesting developments have hit the conference. Abu Dhabi says it is committed to a 7% reduction in carbon emisions by 2020, a first for a member state of Opec. Meanwhile it is raining outside.

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