The Debate: Should we be doing more to combat climate change?
Fifty years ago, few people cared about pollution, deforestation, whaling or the Ozone layer. But even with an increasing awareness of issues concerning the environment, there is still a long way to go.
This week The Independent is looking at the successes and failures of the Green Movement at 50, with a series of blogs and features centred around the question: “Has the environment movement been a success?”
Climate change has been an integral part to the modern discussion of environmentalism; cited as both paramount to our survival and scaremongering, and the debate continues to evoke mixed responses as to what exactly needs to be done.
Tony Juniper argues that we must act to increase taxes on pollution and waste before the impact on our infrastructure is too severe, with Bjorn Lomborg asserting that the tested policies implemented have been futile with little positive outcome for the environment, which requires innovative green alternatives.
Which do you agree with?
Human civilisations emerged during a period when the Earth’s climate was unusually stable. Because of changes to the composition of the atmosphere that time is coming to an end. This is mainly due to the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation.
Because of climate change the weather is becoming more extreme, less predictable and more volatile. This is in turn causing major stresses for our societies, for example in economically costly damage to infrastructure and social impacts linked to higher food prices and health problems. If we don’t act quickly these and other consequences of climate change could become unmanageable. But where should we focus in our search for solutions?
My view is that answers lie mainly in the domain of economics. The problem is big and broad, it requires the kind of fundamental shift in priorities that can only be delivered through price and cost signals. Fortunately we have quite a good box if tools with which to start building our response.
These include ways to price emissions via different kinds of carbon tax and trading schemes, international payments for countries that cut deforestation, reforms to increase taxes on pollution and waste (while cutting them on income), shifting the hundreds of billions of pounds-worth of subsidies away from encouraging fossil fuel use and instead spending that money on expanding sources of clean energy. These and other tools can be used to supercharge the powerful forces of innovation and markets, in the process creating jobs and growth.
Markets and inventiveness will not be enough on their own though. Despite gargantuan efforts by many technological entrepreneurs, very few have been able to break the economic stranglehold of those who thrive in the fools paradise where business-as-usual holds sway. We can be sure of this because the world has known about this problem for more than two decades and despite the many attempts to make change under prevailing economic conditions emissions in 2011 reached an historic high point.
Fiddling around with a few modest environmental rules, or hoping for the best with technology, will not be enough. If we are to get past this particular challenge then climate change must become a priority for big grown up economic policy.
Often, this question implies an indirect ambition: ‘Should more countries set more ambitious targets for cutting carbon at a faster rate?’ Then the answer is no. The current Kyoto-style approach has failed for 20 years, because substantial emissions cuts are very costly for people today, — but with few benefits .
Humanity utilizes fossil fuels because they power everything we like about civilization, from inexpensive food to warmth and transportation. Greater access to modern energy sources means higher living standards and more opportunities. And fossil fuels are generally still much cheaper than green alternatives.
At the same time, dramatic global carbon cuts would only produce a measurable impact on global temperature after 2050 (mid-century).
Thus, it is near impossible to ask countries to cut emissions with more expensive, less efficient and often intermittent green energy, with benefits accrued only in 100 years. Just look at the failed Kyoto treaty, the collapse of 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen, and the absence of any real progress since.
We need to find smarter policies. In the Copenhagen Consensus for Climate (fixtheclimate.com) 27 top climate economists and 3 Nobel Laureate economists found that every pound spent on Kyoto-style CO2 reductions would prevent as little as 2 pence worth of climate damage. In contrast, investing in R&D into green energy would be 500 times more effective, avoiding 10 pounds of climate damage for every pound spent.
This is because innovation promises to reduce the price of future green technologies below the cost of fossil fuels. Then everyone would switch to green energy, not because of a Kyoto deal, but because the technology is cheaper.
So yes, we should do more to combat climate change, but not by repeating the same, failed policies of past decades. To reap the future reward of cheap, green energy, we need to ramp up investment in innovation.
What do you think? Join the debate below.
To view more on the Green Movement at 50, click here
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