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

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).

Yes, 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.

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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”).

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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.

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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.

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