There are few silver linings to the current ghastly pandemic. But one of the benefits is we’re testing the St Greta method of beating climate change and not liking it very much at all.
How glorious it is that the demands of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are coming true. We are putting a significant brake on carbon emissions by strongly limiting the rampant overconsumption of our society.
Granted, no one seems very happy at those carbon dioxide emissions falling by 5% – or 2.5 billion tonnes – this year, but we can’t have everything, can we?
This gets to the nub of the problem with the climate change movement. We know pretty well we could reverse the problem if we all agree to become as poor as church mice, or return to being peasants in the fields. It is the understandable resistance to such reversion which causes the problem itself. We like being able to heat our food, warm our bodies, travel and generally enjoy civilisation. That, at this current level of technological advance, means the use of fossil fuels – at the cost of changes to the climate in the future.
The question is not whether we should do something about it, but what?
The coronavirus outbreak gives us a neat experiment in what happens when humans suddenly dramatically reduce both production and consumption. And, to put it mildly, most of us are not enjoying it one bit. That suggests that instead of the hair shirtery favoured by the Gretas of this world, our best solution is creating the technologies that allow us to keep consuming while also keeping the planet cool with our doing so.
This is not particularly controversial stuff. The economist William Nordhaus got his Nobel for demonstrating how innovation can produce better outcomes with lower consumption. The same is true of Nicholas Stern, whose name adorns one of the best known reports on the consequences of climate change.
Sure, there are differences between the two approaches. Stern says do lots now – as a very rough pencil sketch you understand – while Nordhaus says only do what we’re ready for. More specifically, Nordhaus says work with the capital cycle. Only replace things with the newer non-emitting technology when they are already worn out and ready for replacement anyway. That would not mean, for example, closing down Germany’s nuclear plants when they have decades of useful life left – a policy that has simply made energy more expensive while doing worse than nothing to save the planet. Instead, things should be shut down when they are no longer functional and replaced with newer, cleaner tech.
The underlying point here is that both Nordhaus and Stern thinking like economists whose aim is to maximise human utility – essentially, the joy of being here and alive at this time. As Ryan Bourne noted in a recent CapX piece, economists are forever thinking in terms of costs and benefits and trying to balance them out. They know too that with a great many facets of our lives there is no simple ‘solution’, just a variety of trade-offs that need to be managed.
That’s quite a different approach to the currently fashionable claim that we must eviscerate modern society right now and retreat back to a much lower standard of living as our method of reducing those emissions. For that is what a ‘zero carbon’ society by 2030, or even 2050 is liable to mean in real terms – the guarantee of immediate penury for millions of people.