Posted by keith on January 26th, 2009
When the Stern Review on the economics of climate change was released in 2006, a big crowd of environmental campaigners leapt into the air and waved their arms about. This was not a form of yogic exercise, but a genuine reaction to a document that was meant to radically change the relationship between economics and environmental thinking: no longer could you consider profit margins and growth without considering the effects of climate change. The only problem was that you could still think about profit margins and economic growth – very much so, because the Stern Review was not a report designed to prevent economic growth, it was a report designed to ensure that economists took climate change into account before investing in whatever artifact of Industrial Civilization they were going to invest in.
The Stern Review was not just greenwash, it was a complete whitewash: a way of rebranding economics as a holistic way of looking at the world’s systems, including the ecological systems that we depend on for our survival. Many environmentalists found solace in this: things would get better because economists were starting to care, regardless of the fact that everything in the Stern Review was about maintaining economic growth and keeping the industrial machine ticking over.
This week, New Scientist published a comment by Nicholas Stern called “Decision Time”. I would love to reproduce it in whole here because it screams of a man desperate to maintain his environmental credentials, while clearly not having a clue what he is talking about. To save space, though, I will comment on some of the more pertinant and – quite frankly – scary things he says…
So, whereas our review recommended that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases should be stabilised within a range of 450 to 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide-equivalent, it now seems that our target should not exceed 500 ppm. That’s if we are to keep down the risks of potentially catastrophic impacts which could result from average global temperatures rising 4 °C or more above pre-industrial levels.
This is dangerous garbage. 500ppm is close to a guarantee of runaway global warming. The only reason he is comfortable, as an economist, with this figure is that it is well within the capabilities of Industrial Civilization to — at first — level off carbon levels at this figure. The environmental impact of 500ppm is ignored (see this paper by James Hansen), as is the result of such a high concentration of carbon dioxide causing numerous positive feedbacks in the soil, oceans and permafrosts, increasing the figure to something far greater and more catastrophic.
He goes on to say that global emissions must fall to “half their 1990 level by 2050″, again denying the reality of required emissions reductions.
This requires policies and measures that remove barriers and provide incentives for technological development over three timescales.
First, action is needed to further spread existing low-carbon technologies, such as “green” household appliances. This can be done by creating carbon markets in which the price of emitting carbon reflects the potential impact of those emissions, and by introducing energy-efficiency standards to incentivise innovation, for example.
Creating a global carbon market is the primary outcome goal of the Grantham Research Institute, of which Stern is chair. The GRI is funded by billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham, whose raison d’etre is to make money quickly for very rich ($10m+) clients. Carbon markets exist to allow corporations and governments to buy their way out of reduction committments.
Second, we need more support for the development and scaling-up of technologies that could become commercially viable within the next 15 years, such as second-generation biofuels – which do not directly affect food production – and carbon capture and storage.
CCS is crucial for countries with fast-expanding economies, such as India and China, which currently rely on coal-fired power stations for growth. We need about 30 CCS demonstration projects, on a commercial scale, carried out in developed and developing countries over the next 10 years. This technology needs to spread through international and public-private collaborations.
Second generation biofuels may not directly affect food production, but they most certainly do directly affect habitat: millions of acres of switchgrass at the expense of what? For this and CCS, you only have to turn to page 30 of the same New Scientist to hear what James Lovelock thinks:
Your work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons led eventually to a global CFC ban that saved us from ozone-layer depletion. Do we have time to do a similar thing with carbon emissions to save ourselves from climate change?
Not a hope in hell. Most of the “green” stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It’s not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning.
What about work to sequester carbon dioxide?
That is a waste of time. It’s a crazy idea – and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done.
Never forget that Nicholas Stern is an economist: he was Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank for 4 years, and has seemingly not lost his touch for pretending to care while serving the market system he so adores. When Stern speaks, he is speaking for the economy, and nothing else.