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U.N. Delegates Confront The Cost Of Stopping Climate Change


Coal, oil and natural gas drive modern economies, but they create carbon pollution that warms the planet. The challenge at the United Nations climate conference in Paris is to convince the world's governments to end dependence on fossil fuels. NPR's Christopher Joyce is in Paris, and he reports on what it'll take to get private investors and businesses to take on that task.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: It almost always comes down to money. In particular, who's going to invest in new technology to replace cheap coal, oil and natural gas with greener energy? Yvo de Boer was in charge of the United Nations climate operation before he went into private business. He says businesses and investors do have the money, but they don't get the U.N.

YVO DE BOER: Many businesspeople find this U.N. process incomprehensible.

JOYCE: Businesses find the U.N. too big, too complicated.

DE BOER: They're not only ships passing in the night. They're very often ships moving in opposite directions.

JOYCE: De Boer says many businesses won't invest in new green energy projects that look risky, and many of those look risky no matter where they are. They say politicians and U.N. bureaucrats, like de Boer once was himself, don't speak their language.

DE BOER: If you can't make the business case, stop talking. And if you can't show that somebody has been successful in doing what you're proposing that that CEO does, you're not going to be convincing.

JOYCE: Climate economists, however - and the Paris meeting has plenty of them - say there is some good news on this front. David Victor, who studies climate politics and economics at the University of California, San Diego, says one good sign this week is a promise from some of the world's richest people to invest heavily in green energy. It's called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

DAVID VICTOR: A bunch of billionaires led by Bill Gates have pledged - a little vaguely - pledged to spend more of their own money in a patient way on long-term innovations in the energy sector, kinds of investments that much of the private sector might otherwise be wary about. These are folks who have the money to able to take some risks and then wait many years, if not decades, for them to pay off.

JOYCE: In fact, Victor says private efforts like these, as well as pledges governments have already made to cut their carbon emissions, are making the U.N. much less important.

VICTOR: Frankly, I think the real engine of action here is not coming from the U.N. It's coming from all these decentralized activities. And the U.N.'s kind of helping to steer it a little bit, put it under an umbrella, make sure that it has legitimacy and also, frankly, make sure that these activities don't ignore the least-developed countries.

JOYCE: Countries like Bangladesh or the Pacific Islands that face imminent disaster from rising sea levels - and African countries where severe drought could undercut fragile economies. Governments and international banks have promised billions of dollars to help these countries go green and adapt to a warmer world. That's a cornerstone of any Paris deal. But Victor worries about one demand from developing countries that could derail progress here - something called loss and damage. It's the term for money developing countries want from the West to pay for climate disasters they claim to be suffering from now and others in the future.

VICTOR: That's a complete nonstarter for the Western countries. Suddenly, you're going to have countries claiming that any kind of harm is somehow related to climate change, and they're going to demand compensation for that.

JOYCE: Already, negotiators in Paris are disputing whether loss and damage payments should be in this deal. But economist Rob Stavins of Harvard University says he doubts developing countries will kill the deal over a loss and damage.

ROB STAVINS: Ultimately, I don't believe that there's going to be a walkout or anything like that because it would mean bringing down the house. It would mean losing the global finance, if you stopped an agreement from being reached.

JOYCE: Stavins says there's so much money at stake now - much more than in the past. And that gives Paris the best chance so far for success. Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.