The Response to Climate Change “Can Be Gradual—and Affordable”

When the topic of climate change legislation comes up, Republicans predictably respond with “but what about small business?,” though the concerns generally extend to big business as well. Again and again we hear that any attempt to reduce carbon emissions will significantly reduce economic growth. For example, tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal asks “Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?”  

Taking the no we can’t side of the debate, a side I disagree with, is Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute. Taking the yes we can side is Robert Stavins of Harvard (see here too). He argues, persuasively in my opinion, that objections to climate change legislation based upon what it will do to business, small or large, and what it will do to the economic growth rate suffer from “basic errors”:

Yes: The Transition Can Be Gradual—and Affordable, by Robert Stavins, WSJ [podcast of debate]: …Critics argue that the legislation passed earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives—to cut U.S. emissions 80% below 2005 levels by 2050—will mean big, disruptive changes to our infrastructure and untold economic damage. But they make a couple of basic errors. For one thing, they seem to think we’d have to replace the entire infrastructure quickly, paying trillions of dollars to shift to cleaner power. They also seem to assume that we have to choose between much more expensive energy and no energy at all.

The move to greener power doesn’t have to be completed immediately, and it doesn’t have to be painful. … How would this work? One way is via a combination of national and multinational cap-and-trade systems. … The effect would be to send price signals through the market—making use of less carbon-intensive fuels more cost-competitive, providing incentives for energy efficiency and stimulating climate-friendly technological change, such as methods of capturing and storing carbon.

More Efficient

True, in the short term changing the energy mix will come at some cost, but this will hardly stop economic growth. … Consider this: From 1990 to 2007, while world emissions rose 38%, world economic growth soared 75%—emissions per unit of economic activity fell by more than 20%.

Critics argue we can’t possibly increase efficiency enough to hit the 80% goal. In a very limited sense, that’s true. Efficiency improvements alone … won’t get us where we need to go by 2050. But this plan doesn’t rely solely on boosting efficiency. It brings together a host of other changes,… What’s more, making gradual changes means we don’t have to scrap still-productive power plants…

As for how much this will cost, the best economic analyses—including studies from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Energy Information Administration—say such a policy in the U.S. would cost considerably less than 1% of gross domestic product per year in the long term, or up to $175 per household in 2020. (That’s the cost of one postage stamp per household per day.)

In the end, we would be delaying 2050’s expected economic output by no more than a few months. And bear in mind that previous environmental actions, such as attacking smog-forming air pollution and cutting acid rain, have consistently turned out to be much cheaper than predicted.

Critics … challenge the price estimates the experts have set out. … In particular, they say, developing nations won’t sign onto plans for curbing emissions, for fear of losing their economic momentum. Indeed, we do need a sensible international arrangement in place…, and the economic pain will be much greater if we don’t set up an international carbon market. But it can be done. …

Road to Cooperation

For instance, the U.S. and China have been involved in intense talks about climate policy. If the two nations come together in a bilateral agreement—a real possibility—they would have much more leverage to persuade other major nations to join. From there, developing nations could be brought on board by giving them targets that reduce emissions without stifling growth. Advanced nations might agree to more-severe emissions cuts and allow developing nations to make gradual cuts in the early decades as they rise toward the world’s average per-capita emissions. With the right incentives, developing countries can and will move onto less carbon-intensive growth paths.

The longer we put off serious action, the more aggressive our future efforts will need to be… For every year of delay before moving to a sustainable emissions path, the global cost of taking necessary actions increases by hundreds of billions of dollars. … [A]cting sooner … will lower the ultimate costs of achieving the target, because there will be more time allowed for gradual transition—which is what keeps costs down. Perhaps most important, the costs of failing to take action—the damages of climate change—would be substantially greater. …


Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.