There’s no reason why facing up to the challenge of climate change should not result in wide benefits to human society, including economic benefits. That’s the argument of the multiple authors of Reframing the Problem of Climate Change: From Zero Sum Game to Win-Win Solutions. The book is based on papers presented at a 2010 international conference in Barcelona. They cover a wide range of topics and disciplines but centre around the proposition that it is a mistake to think of action on climate change as though gains can only be made at the expense of losses.
This zero sum mentality the editors see as an understandable consequence of the complexity of the challenge posed by climate change, a complexity not only of the climate system but also of its effects on society and the economy. But it is a mentality which needs to be overcome. We need not be trapped in a tragedy of the commons. Renewable energy is unlimited and the book argues that the transformation to such energy can not only solve the climate problem but also alleviate many other global problems.
In reporting the current status of climate science the book points to the fact that uncertainty is inherent in climate change predictions. Both natural variability and the incompleteness of scientific understanding contribute to this uncertainty. We know that the temperature will warm, that sea level will rise, that global food security and human health will be threatened, but it is not possible to accurately quantify these. It is important that the public understand that uncertainty is integral to the projections, but far from lessening the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions this uncertainty makes it all the more imperative that we do so.
When climate action is framed as a cost, with debate centred on who will pay, surveys indicate that the public become divided and consensus is made difficult. However support for action increases if the economic benefits of a re-tooled low-carbon economy are communicated. Win-win gathers more public support than win-lose.
The question then is whether a green growth economy is feasible. At the centre of the book is a chapter examining, as an example, the European proposal to increase the 2020 emissions reduction target from 20% to 30%. Conventional assessment considers this would jeopardise economic growth. The writers consider that such assessment fails to take into sufficient account factors which, on the contrary, point to economic growth as a result of raising the target. The factors they highlight in particular are investment and learning-by-doing. The European economy needs a substantial increase in investment if it is to be revitalised. An ambitious climate policy can stimulate that. Green technology can be part of a surge of new investment which is not just a reallocation of existing investment. Once under way new investment accelerates learning-by-doing and therefore increases labour productivity and decreases unit production costs. More investment follows in a virtuous cycle. The economy grows along a new green path. The win-win outcome provides emissions reduction, economic growth and additional jobs.
Further chapters of the book pursue the theme into some of the complexities involved. One talks of the actor-driven dynamics of decarbonisation and after a long technical discussion of various models emerges with a list of obvious win-win options which depend strongly on actor initiatives, either on governmental, business, civil society or individual levels. Heading the list is a general increase in employment associated with the introduction of renewable energy technologies. Particular examples include investment in concentrated solar power in low-latitude desert areas, smart grids to enhance international cooperation and interdependence in renewable energy production, and the development of energy storage technologies. The writers point to how the transfer of technological knowhow and capital from developed to developing countries will help the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals. They acknowledge that the communication of knowledge is paramount in all of this and call on science not to shy away from active participation in media campaigns, aggressively delivering findings in unambiguous ways that can be easily understood by the public. Public support prods governments to commit to long-term climate policy which in turn makes firms willing to invest in renewable energy.
Another chapter emphasises the role of government. It recognises that left to themselves markets may make a gradual transformation to low-carbon energy infrastructure, but this is unlikely to be rapid enough to match the extent and urgency of the climate problem. Governments must play a critical role in setting policies that will spur the attraction of private investment.
An interesting chapter centres on reforestation in the Mediterranean region as an example of a win-win strategy that has captured the imagination of environmentalists and investors. It explains the role of forests in the region as a hydrological buffer that greatly alleviates the problems arising from the combination of droughts and floods expected from climate change. Forests also mitigate climate change by capturing carbon and open up biofuel possibilities on land where they don’t compete with food production.
The book comes at its theme from a variety of directions – climate science, economics, politics, sociology, ecology – of which I’ve touched on only a few. The editors describe it as written by scientists, but not for scientists. They aim to address businesses, policy makers and the general public. That doesn’t mean it is an easy read. Its chapters often require sustained attention. But they also reward it. They are a serious approach to a very serious question. Is the necessary decarbonisation of our present fossil-based economy a costly burden? Their answer is no. Quite the contrary. It is an opportunity to greatly benefit human society if we will take it. It’s not as if the technologies to make the transition are not available. They need only to be taken up. There are complexities to be managed in moving investment in that direction, and the book doesn’t minimise those. Entrenched economic patterns are not easily replaced. But, in the words of one of the book’s section headings, “it can be done”.