The mean damage caused by delay on acting on climate change is greater than the cost of taking action, according to new research published in Nature, meaning that governments and businesses cannot use the economic slump as a reason not to invest in tackling climate change.

This argument was used by Greg Barker, minister for energy and climate change, yesterday, speaking to an audience of government and business representatives while on a trade mission to Hyderabad, India.

He said that "policies that tackle climate change, while serving a noble cause, and given the tiny emissions per head of the Indian population, can seem like a long-term luxury that developing economies can ill-afford".

But he said this attitude was wrong, adding that it was a "myth that low-carbon means a break on economic growth, that caring for the environment means leaving millions in poverty, that resource-efficiency means a break on aspiration for hundreds of millions of young people, and that a green economy is a brake on competitiveness for India as a whole".

His speech was dedicated to making the case for an alternative future, and was peppered with examples of success stories in the British economy.

These included Artemis, a university spin-off which invented a new hydraulic system for use in wind turbines that was later bought by Mitsubishi, and Romag, which is producing self-cleaning solar panels which Barker thought would be of great value in India.

The minister also cited another British company, Highview, which is developing an energy storage solution that uses excess energy to chill air, which, when warmed, drives a wind turbine.

Research backing Barker's economic argument is found in an article published today in the academic Nature Climate Change journal.

It concludes that the cost of emitting an additional tonne of carbon dioxide today is $107 per tonne, based on economic growth in developed countries being around 2% per year. Conversely, if these countries continue to be in a state of economic stagnation, then this figure rises to $138 per tonne.

The authors, Dr Chris Hope (Reader in Policy Modelling, Cambridge Judge Business School) and Mat Hope (School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies, University of Bristol) argue that the main reason for the greater damage in a low growth world is that people will have less money than expected when the worst impacts of climate change hit, and so each dollar of damage will be felt more keenly.

The researchers used an integrated assessment model called PAGE09 to estimate the mean social cost of CO2 for a wide range of economic growth scenarios. It measures the net present value of the extra damage caused by the emission of one more tonne of CO2 today.

The results show that in a world with sustained lower economic growth the mean social cost of CO2 increases, because the climate impacts occur in a relatively poor world, suggesting that, if anything, mitigating climate change should be a higher priority for policymakers in a low-growth world.

However, rapid economic growth (over 3% per year) also increases the damage from emitting carbon dioxide, because the greater resulting emissions are more likely to give rise to a greater degree of climate change.

The authors point out that the tension between pursuing policies to revive the major economies of the world and those to reduce emissions was put into stark focus by the chancellor, George Osborne, when he argued at the 2011 Conservative party conference that "we are not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business".

According to the World Bank, economic stagnation is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

Investment in low carbon growth, the authors say, is therefore both desirable for climate protection reasons, but also as a stimulus to the economy.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor