The same week that the UN issued a dire warning on climate change, the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to two Americans conducting ground-breaking research on sustainable economies, offering hope that solutions do exist to the climate change question. John Dyer reports.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, issued dire warnings about climate change this week, releasing a report that claimed humanity had around 20 years to curtail carbon emissions or else risk catastrophic climate change later this century.
“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the IPCC said in a press release, noting that failure to act would cause temperatures to rise by 2 degrees Celsius, causing widespread climactic changes.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 aims to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Letting temperatures rise beyond that point could cost around $54 trillion, the IPCC said, due to rising sea levels, more violent storms, worse droughts and the social and political crises that arise from those natural disasters.
“Every extra bit of warming matters,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, one of the report’s authors and a climate change scientist at the Alfred Wegener institute in Germany.
Work on sustainable economies receive top prize
But the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences offered some hope by awarding the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science to two American economists who have conducted ground-breaking research on sustainable economies that reduce greenhouse gases.
Yale University Economist William Nordhaus’s research on carbon taxes and New York University Business Professor Paul Romer’s research on economic forces shaping innovation shed light on how officials might steer the corporate sector to work for, rather than against, the IPCC’s goals.
“This year’s Laureates have designed methods for addressing some of our time’s most basic and pressing questions about how we create long-term sustained and sustainable economic growth,” the Swedish Academy said in a statement.
Research used in latest IPCC report
Nordhaus was an early researcher into carbon taxes, finding that putting a price on pollution was a fair way to curb emissions and influence businesses to develop means of reducing their outputs. He also developed a model that helped calculate the damage from climate change that coincidentally was used extensively in the IPCC report.
Romer said his research in “endogenous growth theory” illustrated how business didn’t need to stand in the way of reforms to combat climate change. Instead, businesses often drive new change if regulators impose strictures on them. Patents, for example, provide incentives to inventors but don’t let them hoard their ideas forever.
“Many people think that protecting the environment will be so costly and so hard that they just want to ignore the problem,” said Romer during a press conference via telephone. “Humans are capable of amazing accomplishments if we set our minds to it.”
Unchecked capitalism driving climate change
University of Michigan Economist Justin Wolfers agreed.
“The Nordhaus-Romer pairing makes sense, because they each point to contradictions at the heart of capitalism,” he tweeted. “It’s all about market failure. Left alone, markets will generate too much pollution (Nordhaus) and too few ideas (Romer.)”
Still, it’s not clear if the IPCC’s alarms or Nordhaus and Romer’s research would spur change.
The IPCC report said the cost of a ton of carbon should reach $27,000 by 2100, a number that appears extremely costly.
Costs and coal could stand in the way of change
Figures like that give ammunition to climate change deniers like US President Donald Trump, who has denounced climate change as a hoax. They would also give pause to the world’s biggest polluter, China, which is in the midst of an economic slowdown. They also give cover to politicians like Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a Conservative who recently said his country would stop contributing to international funds to promote Paris goals.
Similarly, the IPCC report said the world would need to replace coal soon.
But the World Coal Association, a trade group, said leaders should be seeking new technological advances that retain coal while avoiding its harmful side effects on the climate.
“While we are still reviewing the draft, the World Coal Association believes that any credible pathway to meeting the 1.5 degree scenario must focus on emissions rather than fuel,” the Association said in a statement. “That is why carbon, capture and storage [CCS] is so vital.”