Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Can we save the climate without throttling back the economy

There’s a tendency toward wishful thinking around climate change: New techologies will save us; a fee on carbon would change behavior; somehow, the ‘free market’ will figure this out. At the heart of these ideas is a hope we won’t have to change our lives, give up anything. But what happens when you do the math?

The experts are of two minds. Linear thinkers say no:

Schröder and Storm took those historical trends [population, GDP, adoption of clean technologies, etc] and projected them through 2050, using official numbers from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Long story short, they conclude that the level of action required to hit Paris targets “does compromise economic growth.” The reality, they say, is that “‘green’ growth predicated on carbon decoupling is impossible if we rule out (as is done by the IEA and OECD) truly game-changing technological progress and revolutionary social change.”
Exponential thinkers say Maybe. The adoption of technologies starts slowly and then rapidly accelerates exponentially, what’s referred to as the S-Curve.

If decarbonization of energy supply followed something like the logistics substitution curve above, it would take 12 years for the rate of decline in fossil fuel supply to reach even 5 percent annually. That is considered aggressive in today’s modeling. However, Grubb writes, “by the end of the 35 year time period, the incumbent industry is driven out by the newcomer, declining at rates exceeding 20 percent a year in the latter stages.”
If the decline in fossil fuel supply were linear and steady, averaged out over those 35 years, it would have to be 10 percent a year. At least at the outset, that seems almost impossible. And that’s roughly where we are with climate change: facing changes that, if averaged out over the next three or four decades, require a pace of change that seems impossible based on historical trends.
The problem with that analysis is that feedback loops in the climate may also drive global temperatures exponentially, so waiting for the S-Curve to take off could mean we have to reduce even more carbon and other greenhouse gases.

A prudent society would create incentives for low-carbon technologies and jobs, encourage norms around less-is-more instead of hyper consumerism, and invest heavily in groundbreaking technologies. And it would measure and report progress on climate action at least as often as we hear about GDP and unemployment.


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