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Q: Is a global economic slowdown good for the climate, as Nobelist Paul Crutzen says?

By Joe Romm on October 15, 2008 at 4:21 pm

"Q: Is a global economic slowdown good for the climate, as Nobelist Paul Crutzen says?"

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A: Of course not. Only efforts to sharply cut CO2 emissions starting immediately would be good for the climate.

If proof were ever needed that winning a Nobel Prize does not make you a genius on every subject, consider what atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen told Reuters:

It’s a cruel thing to say … but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage… We could have a much slower increase of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere … people will start saving (on energy use).

monkeybutt.jpgYes, and monkeys could fly out of my butt, which, as an aside, is probably the only thing I could do that might garner a Nobel prize or at least a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. But (butt?) I digress.

If carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing forever, concentrations would still keep rising forever, and the climate would be destroyed. In fact, the recent rate of growth of emissions has been faster than even the most pessimistic IPCC model had projected (see “Global carbon emissions jumped 3% in 2007“). If that rate of growth were cut in half, we would still have our foot on the accelerator headed toward the cliff (see “For peat’s sake: A point of no return as alarming as the tundra feedback“).

Crutzen knows better. He signed the Must Read Bali Climate Declaration by Scientists, which acknowledged that to avoid catastrophic impacts global emissions must peak and decline in the next 10 to 15 years.” A global economic slowdown doesn’t increase the chances of that happening. Quite the reverse.

Lots of people who apparently never believed in serious climate action have been taking the opportunity of the slowdown to say we must back off intelligent emissions controls:

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said that in light of the economic downturn, a bill that would give polluters permits free of charge would be preferable.

And he’s a Democrat. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to know better. Even his own inadequate climate bill doesn’t began restricting emissions for 5 years, and given its absurdly generous rip-offset provisions, it doesn’t actually lower emissions from current levels for two decades (see “Dingell and Boucher draft climate bill: Likely no CO2 cut until near 2030“). Why should the current economic slowdown change what we do several years from now? Even sadder are these comments:

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a lead sponsor of a Senate bill to curb greenhouse gases that failed this year, acknowledged that the economy could delay when reductions in carbon dioxide would start.

Has he even read his own bill? It too doesn’t kick in at all for five years, and it too wouldn’t actually start reducing CO2 emissions below current levels for two decades (see “Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill update: Probably no U.S. CO2 emissions cut until after 2025“).

You would expect such doubletalk from congressional opponents of climate action — and you wouldn’t be disappointed:

“The current economic crisis only reinforces the public’s wariness about any climate bill that attempts to increase the costs of energy and jeopardizes jobs,” Inhofe said.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, took the argument a step further when he said the Boucher-Dingell bill could lead the country “off the economic cliff.”

Too late, Barton. Letting Republicans run things for eight years has already pushed us off that cliff. Now we’re supposed to listen to you on climate issues and cross irreversible thresholds that lead to the destruction of the health and well-being of a multitude of future generations.

You have to admire the chutzpah of these guys. They opposed climate action during a strong economy because we had record energy prices (thanks in large part to their long-standing opposition to a serious energy policy). So they argued in the spring that a carbon cap would further increase prices. Now they oppose climate action when their catastrophic financial and anti-regulatory policies have weakened the economy to the breaking point. I wonder if the media will ever catch on that these guys simply oppose action at any time for any reason.

Sadly, the Europeans are going wobbly, too:

The financial crisis and slumping economic activity are threatening Europe’s ambitious plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions, with governments eager to avoid saddling companies with additional burdens.

“The Germans are giving up and the Italians are getting ready to follow,” said one European negotiator on condition of anonymity.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising (see Hansen’s trip report finds “sobering degree of self-deception” in Germany, UK, Japan).

And so the bribing begins:

Energy-intensive industries are set to receive a huge cash boost from the European Commission as part of a controversial move to protect Europe’s industrial sector from world recession.

Within weeks the EU is to debate whether to allow European industrial giants tens of millions of pounds off carbon allowances they have to buy as part of the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS).

G¼nter Verheugen, European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, in an exclusive interview with The Observer, said the move will prevent hundreds of thousands of job losses in the EU industrial sector amid the worst economic conditions for decades.

Verheugen said European industrial powerhouses are refusing to invest in new plants and businesses in the eurozone because they claim ‘compliance costs’ caused by the emission trading scheme make new ventures too costly. Verheugen fears a huge surge in unemployment if the world’s financial crisis escalates.

Note to Environmental Defense Fund: You still believe we are going to “generate large sums of money” from auctioning the permits? That sounds like more magical thinking to me.

It is going to become increasingly untenable for Europe to “go it alone” on climate, if their major economic competitors — the United States and China — refused to adopt strong action.

Clearly if we are going to pass serious climate legislation next year then

  1. It must be accompanied (or preceded) by a very strong clean energy recovery/investment bill.
  2. Some of the allowances are going to have to be given to companies to help them deal with the economic impacts, at least at the beginning.
  3. Most of the revenues from the auction are going to have to go back to the public, to make the higher energy costs tolerable from both a practical and political perspective.
  4. There isn’t going to be a lot of money left over, especially in the early years. The push for clean tech will have to come from the recovery/investment bill or regulations like fuel economy and appliance standards, building codes, and alternative fuel mandates.
  5. We are going to have to get real commitments from China pretty quickly after we pass any domestic climate bill or the whole thing is likely to fall apart at the first recession or first major energy price spike.

We must all hang together or we will surely all hang separately.
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11 Responses to Q: Is a global economic slowdown good for the climate, as Nobelist Paul Crutzen says?

  1. Larry Coleman says:

    I don’t see Crutzen saying what you suggest he says. All he said is that an economic slowdown could decrease the rate of emissions, not that it would stop the increase, nor that it would solve the problem or save our bacon. Just that the situation could be better than otherwise. As you point out, emissions have exceeded the most pessimistic projections of the IPCC. If a slowdown brought them down to a rate at the IPCC A1-level, or below, that would be an improvement, but not any cause for joy.

    The reaction of the right and left, however, is utterly depressing. This is a time to see how we can create jobs as we address GW, not hunker down and let the world pass us by.

  2. Modesty says:

    It’s a weird expression. “…of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere…”

  3. paulm says:

    I have to agree with Crutzen. The only way that we are going to reduce CO2 emission by any reasonable amount quickly is if we go in to a depression. And I think that is going to be the case. Phew!

    Western levels of consumption cannot be supported by any other fuel than fossil fuels, especially oil (this should be apparent to you Joe). No other replacement will facilitate the flexibility and leverage we get from this compact energy source.

    All our progress in to the 20th and 21st century has been propelled by oil. When oil starts to dwindle and slid down that slippery slop after peak (ie now), the world population will have to come down – it just can not be supported with any technology we have now and that we will develop in the next 15-20yrs.

    Also the standard of living will fall – we will be much less mobile; our choice of food will be curtailed due to production and transportation cost; iphone gadgets will be too expensive for the average person; there will be expensive security issues to tend to. etc. etc.

    The onset of the depression is, you could say, a God send. (Maybe it is actually triggered by the climate change and peak oil, as such is a feedback, a tipping point!) Looking back on what happened in the last depression we see that the 2nd World War (which was probably caused by the depression) was the prime stimulus that lifted the economy out of the dark depths. This is the way forward then – the depression, which reduces our emission; then the ‘War’ against Climate Change. The War which will be world wide, pulling us out at the other end, based on green technology and sustainable solutions.

    This has got to be the way forward, considering the reality of the situation to day. The Green party in Canada lost the only seat it had and the conservative government, the one with the worst Climate Change and environmental policy, was vote back in again with a slight increase in its minority standing.

    So we need to embrace the down turn and use it to sling-shot the world forward in a environmental and sustainable Nirvana.

  4. John McCormick says:

    Paulm and (to a lesser degree) Larry,

    You are looking at statistics and not the entire picture.

    A downturn in the US and world economy leading to prolonged recession…possible depression …as more financial sector timebombs detonate (things like derivaties meltdown, commercial sector loans defaulting, collapse of some major companies) increasing federal deficit spurring hyperinflation and higher interest rates are lethal injections for the global climat change fix.

    Massive (trillion dollars) investment in renewables, energy efficiencies in buldings and cars, RD&D here and throughout the industrialized world including China, India and Brazil will be less available and that means the pipelined warming will still occur and time will be squandered at a time when the world must capitalize its energy retooling.

    Recession or depression offer misery and lost opportunities to save our children’s future and mean nothing to the today concern about increased rates of CO2 measured by Mauna Loa.

    Those stats are the body temperature. We need very expensive antibiotics the economic downturn will put out of reach.

    John McCormick

  5. Dano says:

    The issue is that we are liklely going into a deep recession, and what do we do while we are in it and how do we manage ourselves?

    The issue is not whether recessions are bad or green jobs are good. Both are true. Now what do we do?

    Best,

    D

  6. John McCormick says:

    Dano,

    Ourselves is the government of the United States. How we, the people manage ourselves will be tested on election day.

    Assuming we are not a brain dead nation, Senator Obama will havae the opportunity to do what FDR did but in a much broader sense; yes to infrastructure repair and yes to constructing expanded, smarter grid using the kind of financial instruments the Bushies showered on the big investment banks, etc.

    I am for (partially) nationalizing the grid and the taxpayers collecting rent from the power shippers.

    Lots more ideas about ‘we, the people’ owning some of the new energy investments Wall Street seem averse to making.

    TVA is not a family friend to some enviros but it is a good place to focus public funds to get the ball rolling.

    John McCormick

  7. paulm says:

    John, that is the obvious and the way we hoped it would go.

    The reality is its not going to fly. We are probably well past the thresholds and our only chance is an immediate precipitous decline in CO2 emission and an intensive effort to draw down the current level.

    This is not going to happen with the current world economy and attitude. There is no way we can ween ourselves off fossil fuels with out pain. As others have said we are addicted to it.

    I know a depression is painful, but to me seems the only way forward now. The last depression was only 80yrs ago and look were we are now. Economic gain is not the only thing that drives human effort!

    The catastrophe that is Climate Change will be multiple centuries – give me a depression any day.

  8. Ronald says:

    What is it that people are writing? Don’t we read some of the reports that this website has pointed out?

    I don’t have time to go back and pull them up, but some reports have reported that moving to a greenhouse gas emission reduced economy would cost between 0.6 to 2.0 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. With a 14 trillion (14 000 billion) dollar a year economy, that could mean spending between 84 to 280 billion dollars a year on non-carbon and extremely low carbon energy. That’s very doable.

    I’m with Al Gore and that we should overspend on non-carbon and extremely low carbon energy sources. Overspend would mean spend more than just the replacement of carbon fueled energy sources as plants age and new sources, but actually replace carbon fueled energy sources with non-carbon and low carbon energy sources.

    Decrease the need for energy by using more insulation and better designs on houses and other buildings, putting in CTL, LED and passive solar lighting. Fill the electrical grid with wind, solar and all the other low carbon fueled sources and have batteries and battery vehicles built to get charged from that electrical grid. Wind and solar are intermitant, but they should be the majority sources of the grid and carbon fuels should be used intermitantly to keep the grid running.

    Recessions and major recessions have nothing to do with our long term energy use. We have to substitute carbon fueled energy for non carbon fueled energy and have everybody else do it also.

  9. paulm says:

    Decrease the need for energy by using more insulation and better designs on houses and other buildings, …

    We have to reduce our energy consumption by reducing our consumption. That is the only way forward for the immediate future.

    We are living a far too selfish and materialistic life in the west anyway.

  10. Larry Coleman says:

    John says: “We need very expensive antibiotics the economic downturn will put out of reach.

    If true, the game is lost. Doing something about GW is a hard sell even if doing so is a net benefit economically…there is abundant evidence for this fact.

    But how is, e.g., following California’s example in electricity efficiency, where a typical family saves $1500/year because of their policies, a “very expensive antibiotic.” The fact is that there are many ways to decrease GHG emissions that we ought to be doing anyway…because they save money. The IPCC estimates that we can achieve about 2./3 of the required reductions in emissions with no net cost. We need to begin these things now and move into the efforts that have a net cost as the cost comes down. The idea that doing something is a huge expense is an insideous fiction that needs constant rebutting. All of this is even more relevant during a downturn when we are not flush and when wasting money due to inefficiencies and poor choices makes even less sense.

  11. casey says:

    i am working with a committee in broward county florida that is making policy recommendations to the commission re: reducing Climate Change impacts.
    Even tho this is a year old ( almost) i found it useful.

    thanks

    and i do agree with the Crutzen comment, and think the way is going to be painful and inevitable, and we won’t all survive it. I hope that enough of the good ideas will be launched to enable humanity to evolve into a being that lives harmoniously with other life forms on this planet.