By Tim Large
LONDON, March 6 (Reuters) - What would it cost to wipe out world poverty, guarantee universal health care, stabilise population growth and roll back the ravages of global warming?
About $190 billion a year, or the equivalent of a third of U.S. annual military expenditure, a prominent environmental economist says in a new book.
"Once you accept that climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices etcetera are threats to our security, it changes your whole way of thinking about how you use public resources," Lester Brown told Reuters in an interview.
From eradicating adult illiteracy to restoring fisheries and stabilising water tables, the head of the Earth Policy Institute think tank in Washington calculates the cost of saving civilisation in a new edition of his best-selling "Plan B".
The $190 billion price tag compares with $1.2 trillion that world governments spent on military budgets in 2006. The United States splurged the most with $560 billion.
Describing a planet on the brink of environmental meltdown, Brown calls for a "great mobilisation" to fight climate change, equivalent to the Allied wartime effort to beat Nazi Germany.
Plan A would be for the world to continue on its present course. Plan B is Brown’s strategy to stabilise climate, stem runaway population growth, eradicate poverty and restore damaged ecosystems.
Brown argues that failure to achieve any one of these goals would result in defeat overall.
"I don’t think Plan B is perfect, but it’s the only plan out there — the only alternative to business as usual," he said.
"One might think that the World Bank or the U.N. or someone would have a plan that takes into account how systems are interacting and what that translates into, but the reality is this is the only one."
The centrepiece of Brown’s blueprint for change is a detailed plan to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2020 to keep a lid on future temperature rises.
He also calls for a restructuring of the world economy — and tax systems in particular — to make markets "ecologically honest", meaning that commodity prices should reflect indirect environmental costs.
Take the price of water, which Brown argues is too cheap to discourage countries from exhausting vital sources.
"The thing to keep in mind is that it takes 1,000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of grain," he said.
"Seventy percent of all the water we use in the world — that we pump from underground or divert from rivers — is used in irrigation. Not everyone has connected the dots to see that a future of water shortages will be a future of food shortages."
Brown, who has authored or coauthored more than 50 books, was one of the first economists to warn that the boom in biofuels could be a threat to global food security.
"In this new world where the price of grain is tied to the price of oil, if the price of oil goes up, so grain goes up," he said. "And that is a threat to political stability in the world that I don’t think we’ve come close to grasping yet."
A central theme of "Plan B" is that it’s not too late to save the planet — if we act now.
That optimism sets Brown apart from eco-pioneers like Gaia guru James Lovelock, who has concluded it’s too late to reverse the devastating effects of climate change.
"He might be right, and he’s not the only one who thinks that," Brown said. "I have to hope there’s a chance we can turn it around. Otherwise there’s no point. Even if we lose it’s better to go down fighting than just standing there." (Editing by Andrew Roche) (For information about humanitarian issues visit Reuters AlertNet http://www.alertnet.org email: email@example.com; +44 207 542 2432)