Climate Change, Economic Growth, Santa Claus & Sanity Clause

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America led the world in reducing carbon pollution in 2016, with a decline of three per cent. But the Trump Administration’s plans suggest that current trends are about to shift. PHOTOGRAPH BY KAYANA SZYMCZAK / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX

Thanks to J. B. MacKinnon for this post on the New Yorker website about the relationship between things we know to be true, things we want to be true, and things which may seem like wishful thinking (for which Santa Claus might be the only hope if we cannot adhere to the sanity clause of our compact with the planet):

CAN WE SLOW GLOBAL WARMING AND STILL GROW?

On March 17th, the International Energy Agency announced that 2016 marked the third year in a row that global carbon emissions had stayed at the same level while the world’s economy grew. This three-time repeat has put to rest any lingering suspicions of gremlins in the data. Something new is happening. The global economy has now grown nearly ten per cent without any increase in the annual CO2 emissions that are the principal human contribution to climate change. In the parlance of sustainability, growth and emissions appear to have “decoupled.”

Nearly as remarkable was the star of the latest announcement: the United States. Long decried as a climate-action laggard, America led the world in reducing carbon pollution in 2016, with a decline of three per cent. More important, this improvement was not tied primarily to the evolution of its economic system. Wealthy nations have long been moving toward economies anchored in finance and services, which produce less pollution, but, by continuing to consume, they effectively outsource carbon pollution from manufacturing to other countries. While the Global Carbon Project estimates that U.S. emissions should still be adjusted upward by about ten per cent to account for products consumed in America but made elsewhere, recent gains within the United States have been achieved by burning less coal and more natural gas, which is a cleaner fuel, and, to a lesser extent, through an increase in renewables. If that’s not news enough, G.C.P. scientists reported, in a paper published in January, that current trends in energy are “broadly consistent” with Paris Agreement targets for 2030, which aim to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius.

This is shout-it-from-the-rooftops stuff. Since 1972, and the publication of “The Limits to Growth,” there has been debate over whether economic growth and a sustainable environment are incompatible. Can humans live with the comforts to which we have become accustomed (or aspire to)—air-conditioning, cars, constantly updated wardrobes—without doing environmental harm? “The Limits to Growth” both warned against infinite growth on a finite planet and acknowledged that “it is success in overcoming limits that forms the cultural tradition of many dominant people in today’s world.” That dominant world view has not shifted. Decoupling economic activity from its ecological consequences is central to the goals of international sustainability and development. It’s the foundation of American faith that technology can resolve climate change without the need to substantially change our life styles. It’s the holy grail of “green growth.”

If the I.E.A.’s announcement didn’t quite become a eureka moment, it’s in part because the Trump Administration’s plans suggest that current trends are about to shift. On Friday, the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada received a Presidential permit, while a proposed budget released by the White House earlier this month would end spending on federal climate-change research and prevention programs. As Amy Davidson and others have described, the Trump Administration is hostile toward efforts to combat climate change, and it has promised that energy and climate policies will focus on reviving the coal industry, reducing carbon-emission standards for vehicles and power plants, and revisiting requirements that climate change be considered, and its costs accounted for, in decisions by federal agencies. Critics have pointed out that at least some of these efforts are unlikely to succeed (the I.E.A. emphasized that America’s 2016 emissions drop was driven by markets and new technologies as much as by policy), but any one of them would increase carbon emissions. A historic advance against climate change is threatened with reversal.

The about-face is compounded by the scope of what still needs to be accomplished. Laura Cozzi, the head of the I.E.A.’s energy-demand-outlook division, told me that the over-all slowdown in emissions “underlies a three-speed story.”…

Read the whole post here.

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