To boldly go… to a low carbon future

by Bryan Walker on January 8, 2012

I liked the sub-heading to a Guardian article on Friday. “The theory that cutting carbon emissions costs us growth is bunk, in fact, it’s an economic opportunity.” The article itself is a little less exuberant in its expression, understandably given that one of its authors, Vinod Thomas (pictured), is director general for independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank and the other, Manish Bapna, is interim president at the World Resources Institute, a well-established and respected global environmental think tank. Nevertheless its affirmation is clear:

“Not only can preparing for climate change offer opportunities for economic growth, it would be unwise to pursue one without the other.”

They acknowledge that there is currently something of a stalemate between the stubborn economic downturn and the need to effectively address climate change, with many arguing that the latter would be harmful to economic recovery. The writers disagree. They present specific examples of “common sense policies that can promote growth and cut greenhouse gas emissions”. The examples are not unfamiliar, but it’s worth being steadily reminded of them in a world which seems to find it so difficult to think of economic recovery in any other terms than a re-establishment of disrupted patterns.

First is energy, which substantially influences both the climate and the economy. The article points to the huge gains to be made through energy efficiency, which can both drive growth and make a significant dent in emissions, given the right drivers and incentives. The other obvious step is phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, which attracted a staggering $409 billion in 2010. It is politically challenging, but it would both spur global clean energy development and generate economic growth.

The writers’ second example is forestry. Land in areas such as the Amazon is worth a good deal more with trees than cleared for pasture, at even a modest price of $10 a ton for unreleased emissions. Preventing deforestation in such situations is an economy-boosting opportunity. So is the restoration of already degraded lands.  Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, offers a prime example. Reform of land and tree tenure and a programme to support regeneration of trees has benefitted 4.5 million people, increasing food production and farmers’ incomes, as it creates new markets.

The third example is public transport.

“While an expanding auto industry can be part of a country’s economic recovery, investments in cleaner public transport have been found to generate even greater economic returns.

“In the United States, stimulus dollars spent on public transport yielded 70 more job hours than those spent on highways, according to Smart Growth America. Meanwhile in Mexico, the government is pursuing an innovative transportation approach with policies and investments to scale up bus rapid-transit networks across the country.”

The writers recognise that against the logic of such examples powerful special interests are blocking progress in many countries.

“To overcome these entrenched interests, countries – especially the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters – need to recognize that addressing climate change is in their national interest and will improve public well-being.”

Entrenched interests are certainly the sticking-point. In a country like the US they wield enormous power, helped greatly by the ease with which political support can be purchased. In another Guardian article this week Bill McKibben is eloquent on the need to get corporate cash out of Congress. The sad spectacle of Republican presidential nomination candidates falling over each other in the rush to deny or soft-pedal the scientific reality of climate change and to support continuing fossil fuel exploitation has been a reminder of the iron grip of vested interests on the political life of that country.

Not that heavy funding of political parties is the only way such interests are secured. When I was reading the Guardian articles I thought of the New Zealand government’s position. It speaks of addressing climate change and of economic growth, but not in terms of their being interdependent; finding balance between the two demands is its preferred, and frequently reiterated, mode. The difference is not inconsequential. It allows strong support to the maintenance of business as usual, tempered or disguised by a patina of light environmental regulation such as the current form of the emissions trading scheme. It envisages with equanimity the full development of New Zealand’s fossil fuel resources, down to Southland lignite and offshore methane hydrates if we can get to them. Blatant financial backing of political candidates may not figure strongly in the New Zealand setting, but the political influence of vested interests is pervasive and it is apparently in any case difficult for many politicians to move in their thinking outside the conventional structure of the economy.

Thomas and Bapna use the term political courage as they urge countries to act boldly and urgently toward the low carbon future which must ultimately be embraced, and remind us that there will be rewards for those who do. They could have added that the longer the delay the more fearful the consequences, but they stayed with their central argument that there is commonality, not conflict, between effective mitigation of climate change and economic recovery.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

barry January 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm

What we are coming up against is a “property right”. The only way to stop warming is to keep oil and coal in the ground where nobody can earn any money off them. Oil and coal companies have these reserves as huge assets on their books, and if they can’t bring them to the surface and sell them they are not getting any return. Even where they don’t yet own the resource, they have a large capital investment in finding and getting rights to it.

Of course protection of “property rights” delayed the abolition of slavery.

Our “property right” to a livable climate is strong, but hard to push politically.

Bryan Walker January 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I think the parallel with slave-owning is entirely apt. There are some property rights which become ethically indefensible and have to be surrendered.

Macro January 9, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Thank you for a very perceptive observation on the issue. It again all falls back on the Ethical Basis for property rights developed by John Locke. Prior to Locke, most land was “common”, the concept of “ownership” is an 18th C construct. When you think about it, how does one “OWN” a piece of land? The law, following Locke, now allows the “owner” certain rights and privileges but, what happens after a landslide for instance, or an earthquake, and the land no longer exists?
As an example of Ethics – Locke’s Treatise on Property was hardly “ethical” as it was the vehicle used by the British parliament for stripping indigenous (ie Native Americans, Africans, Indians, Aboriginal, and Maori) land from them.

Gosman January 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Interesting analysis Macro and I would largely agree with it albeit with a rather large proviso.

The trouble with your analysis is that you fail to take into account the huge benefit for the general welfare of the wider population that came from the changes in the way we regard private property post the 18th century.

Prior to the 18th Century the vast majority of the population, (i.e. those who relied on the ‘common’ land for their wealth), were mired in poverty. The sort of poverty that we would now regard as being unacceptable even in places in the third world.

It was the changes to the economy that resulted from a redistribution of this ‘common’ land that enabled the huge increas in wealth that we in the West now ALL benefity from.

You can see these benefits by taking alook at this document ( Please note the tables and the graphs at the bottom of the document. They all indicate World GDP exploding from about 1700 onwards.

Now you might think things can be done better going forward with a different paradigm, and it would be interesting to see what sort of model you suggest, however it is intellectually dishonest to deny the undoubtable benefits accrued to the entire human population from the economic changes you now decry.

Macro January 13, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Yes the modern unsustainable lifestyle of modern man does have some of it’s theoretical basis in 17thC Philosophy. Again the concept of unlimited resources has its foundation there as well. Considering the small population at the time and the supposed boundless expanse of the North American Continent, that was perhaps a perfectly understandable assumption. Today, however it is far from the truth.
The expansion of “economic” wealth has been largely the result of the expansion of products and services, based on “cheap” Carbon fueled energy. As in all “good” business the costs have been externalised, and passed on to future generations. Today were are begining to reap the cost passed on to us by previous users. These costs come in many forms – unstable pricing following peak oil, oceans that are now more acidic than ever in human existance, an atmosphere where CO2 levels have risen from 270ppm to around 390pmm and rising, with consequent Global warming still to reach its equilibrium, and a world economy tettering on collapse.

Gosman January 16, 2012 at 4:35 pm

That Carbon fuel was always available to mankind. It took the structures and ideas that came out of the Enlightenment (like individual property rights) that enabled it to be expolited. Now I agree that the environmental costs of this have been externalised to a large extent but the question becomes are we all better off currently than we were prior to the changes. If you think not then you are essentially advocating for a return to pre-industrial society or at least one where the vast majority of the people are poorer than we are now. That is a heavy price to pay. I would prefer a solution where we look to mitigate and even reverse the impacts of climate change without reverting back to a state of universal poverty. By the way I reject your view that growth is somehow constrained. The world still has around about the same amount of resources as it did prior to the industrialisation that took place post 1750.

bill January 17, 2012 at 7:35 pm


By the way I reject your view that growth is somehow constrained. The world still has around about the same amount of resources as it did prior to the industrialisation that took place post 1750.

That’s a religious belief, being an article of (absurd) faith having no basis whatsoever in physical reality.

As with all articles of faith, anyone who wants – the operative word – to believe this doubtlessly cannot be talked out of it, but I will point out to any lurkers here that this kind of cornucopian economic fundamentalism is shared by virtually all Deniers and Donothingists. They’re defending an ideology, not a set of facts.

Are you really prepared to stake your future on this shop-worn, Pollyannaish nonsense?

Macro January 16, 2012 at 7:39 pm

“world still has around about the same amount of resources as it did prior to the industrialisation that took place post 1750.”

You obviously have no understanding or appreciation of “peak oil”.

Gosman January 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm

What are we essentially burning when we burn oil Macro?

Macro January 17, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Ahh! so you don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics either! Thought not! Neither do the multitude of Classical Economists who insist endless “growth” from “infinite” resources. But before you classify me as a fundamentalist anti-evolutionary from the religious right, I suggest you look up just exactly what the 2nd Law is about – because it is on this fundamental physical law, as much as anything else, that neo-liberal economics stumbles. (To help you along the way – just think that when you burn a fossil fuel, the point in doing so is to RELEASE stored energy, and use that energy for some work. NOW having broken down that Fossil fuel into CO2 H2O etc and ENERGY, you suggest that the resource (ie the stored ENERGY) is still there?!

Gosman January 18, 2012 at 10:01 am

What is the mistake about entropy that Creationists make in their argument because it is the same one you are making here?

Why do the rules on entropy not apply to life on Earth, therefore make evolution unlikely, in the way they claim it does?

Gosman January 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

Let me rephrase. Creationist argue that entropy of energy means that bigger and more complex life forms and abundant life could not form from nothing as you can’t create more energy on the planet than existed when it was created (essentially the same argument you seem to be using). Hence why the Theory of Evolution is totally bunk. What is wrong with that statement?

Macro January 18, 2012 at 11:18 am

You really have no idea about what I was talking about do you! I SPECIFICALLY said DON”T confuse me with a creationalist! I’m talking about your complete ignorance of the 2nd Law and it’s implications for Economic theory and the use of fossil fuels.

Gosman January 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

Why can’t you answer the question Macro?

What is wrong with that statement I made about how complex and abundant life could not have developed on Earth as they have more energy than a World that was lifeless and the Second law of Thermodynamics states energy tends towards entropy?

It is quite easy to spot and it is what is fundamentally wrong with your position as well.

Macro January 18, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Because the concepts are as chalk and cheese!
Fossil fuels took millions if not billions of years to form, essentially converting solar energy into chemical energy. In 200 years humans have used up substantial amounts of that stored energy. So much in fact that half of the largest oilfields are now in decline. To convert the “by-products” of burning fossil fuels back into oil, thus reclaiming the resource, is nonsense, and would require more energy than was released in the burning! Your worrying about creationist theory has nothing to do with the matter.

Gosman January 19, 2012 at 8:50 am

The concepts aren’t chalk and cheese. You brought up the concept of entropy which I showed is irrelevant to the discussion. You now acknowledge we don’t have to worry about running out of resources but simply getting enough energy to reuse the resources we now have. Luckyily the planet receives a lot more energy than it currently needs. Indeed it is the ultimate source for global warming. You may think it takes millions of years to create hydrocarbons but that is incorrect. Bio-fuel takes months to convert carbon from the air to something that can be used to power vehicles and machines.

Gosman January 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

I acknowledge there are a number of issues around using up valuable farm land for growing crops for fuel purposes, (although this is essentially what humans did prior to using Fosil fuels), and there are efficiency issues around the process. Both of these are potentially solvable with increased technology.

It might be preferable to use other energy sources. I myself would like to see the increased use of ‘clean’ electricity and Hydrogen. But what is clear is that the world isn’t running out of anything. It is just finding it harder to reuse the resources it has an abundant amount of.

CTG January 20, 2012 at 7:07 am

So we are not ever going to run out of oil or coal? Never?

Gosman January 20, 2012 at 9:29 am

It would be more accurate to state that it is improbable that we will run out of hydocarbons. in the foreseeable future. Oil and Coal are just forms of hydrocarbons.

Doug January 20, 2012 at 9:33 am

CTG technically no as biological and geological processes will produce more in 10 50 or a 100 million years. Although I am not sure that is useful to us here in the 21st century.
Gosman’s problem is he does not understand the concept of net energy and the important role that a large energy surplus has had in creating the civilization we currently enjoy. As this surplus has declined since the 1970s were have seen a series of energy crisis and associated economic recessions. The trend has been hidden by moving the energy deck chairs around the deck so to speak, but on a global per capita basis energy production peaked 35 years ago.

PS electricity and hydrogen are not an energy sources they are energy carriers.

Gosman January 20, 2012 at 10:12 am

We don’t have a problem with a lack of energy on the planet. We do have issues around using the energy we have a surplus of though. We have been using up the easily available sources of energy ever since we developed civilisations. Many European civilisations ran into problems when they ran out of trees that was both a building material and a key source of fuel.

The key is to find economically viable sources of energy that are abundant but which have a less environmentally damaging impact than fosil fuels. Failing that it would be managing the output of the damaging impact of burning hydrocarbons so that what is pumped into the atmosphere is taken out via some other means.

Both of these solutions don’t necessarily mean the end of civilisation as we know it or the abandonment of our current way of life.

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