Casaubon's Book

To make up for yesterday’s frivolity, today I am going to be very, very serious, and deal with weighty serious things. There will be no levity – not from me, and certainly not from my very serious readers. In fact, if I detect signs of levity from any of you, especially those of you with sad proclivities towards levity (Risa, Edson, Lora…I’m talking to you!), you will be publically denounced from my pulpit (I have to go build a pulpit now.)

More practically, I’m going to try and catch up on some things people have asked me to write about, many of which are more serious and require more attention from me. I have been ignoring them because it is really nice outside, I can plant things, and well, I’m lazy, but today is my day to sit down and make myself do the work.

But fortunately, I don’t have to ride one of my particular hobby horses today, because Stuart Staniford did it for me, doing a critique of Paul Krugman’s assumptions about the costs of addressing climate change.. I know I borrowed from Stuart recently for content, but if I’d known he was going to go off and do such a useful piece ;-)…ah well, I may not agree with him on many fronts, but Staniford is always useful (except maybe on robots ;-)).

Again, it is important to remember that I don’t agree with Staniford on a number of things – but what I like about his work is that it is usually interesting and thoughtful. I tend not to be one of those people who believes, as my friend Pat Murphy says “If you can’t measure it, you don’t understand it.” I think there are a lot of interesting ways to process information, and in speculative pursuits like the one Staniford and I are both engaged in (figuring out what the future might be like), running the numbers about technical or economic feasibility gives you one piece of the picture – and not always the most important one – often it is more important to talk about how people understand things, or the likelihood of any given feasibility coming into play. But the kind of work Staniford does so brilliantly is a useful part of the puzzle.

Next, let’s think briefly about some implications of the quantitative claims above about economic growth and emissions reductions. US trend economic growth in recent decades is about 3% a year. So between now and 2050, in a business-as-usual future that is similar to the recent past, we would expect the economy to grow by 1.0340-1 = 225%. So the economy will be about three times as large as it currently is. Some of this will come from there being more people in the US, but more of it will come from the people being wealthier, which of course they generally like to express by having bigger houses, bigger and faster cars, and more advanced technology to fill them both with.

Now, if the economy is going to be a bit more than three times larger, but we are only going to emit 17% of the current level of carbon emissions, then the carbon intensity of the economy – that is the ratio of carbon emitted per dollar of goods and services created, is going to have to be only 5% of the current value. Next you have to figure that there are certain things in an industrial society that are very hard to do without liquid fuel – construction and agricultural machinery come to mind, along with aviation. Relying heavily on biofuels is a very dubious prospect in a world that also needs to feed 9 billion (assumed wealthier) people from its limited agricultural land. So you can probably figure that the residual 5% of carbon emission intensity is all going to go on these kind of specialized uses that are hard to substitute.

Therefore, these goals basically imply that the ordinary living and working of most citizens would be essentially carbon free by 2050. That is in 40 years time.

Do read the whole piece. Several things worth mentioning here. First, I don’t think that we’re going to grow as much as Staniford does. Second, I think it is important to remember that Waxman-Markey is insufficient to handle climate emissions – in fact, we’re going to have to cut them much further than Waxman-Markey provides for or see higher emission outcomes.

One of the reasons I wanted to post this is because in the next piece, where I respond to Alex Steffen’s latest I think this will be important – Steffen makes a lot of the same assumptions Staniford does, but without the economic clarity.



  1. #1 darwinsdog
    April 13, 2010

    “Now, I can certainly imagine a middle class lifestyle and workstyle that is carbon free.”

    No food, then? No wood products? No steel? Both Krugman’s analysis & Staniford’s critic of it are so ridiculous as to be hilarious. And you promised no levity, Sharon. :))

  2. #2 Tim Bartik
    April 13, 2010

    Paul Krugman has a reply to this type of critique, which is a critique that unites a particular wing of the environmental movement with various conservative business interests:

    Basically, Staniford’s critique amounts to saying the following: to reach ambitious CO2 emissions targets 40 years from now, and still have significant economic growth, we have to significantly reduce CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP, and do so at a very good clip over the next 40 years. And then he looks at the amount of reduction in CO2 emissions and says that he doesn’t see how we will do that without significantly reducing economic growth.

    The response that Krugman has, along with most environmental economists: it’s amazing what you can do with the right incentives and enough time. And this is not simply “pie in the sky”: much of the reduction can be achieved with technologies we already have that become economically feasible with the right carbon prices and other policies. Yes, the adjustment to much lower CO2 to GDP ratios will require large changes in relative prices and changes in how energy is produced and consumed. But the extra costs involved are not so prohibitive as to preclude significant economic growth.

  3. #3 DR
    April 13, 2010

    I had a quick look at the link above.

    “First, power generation has to be “decarbonized”: solar, nuclear, wind, geothermal, and maybe some fossil fuels with carbon capture have to replace coal-fired plants. This is within the reach of current technologies.

    Second, residential and commercial use — much of it for heating — also has to be largely decarbonized; if power generation is decarbonized, much of this can be done by switching to electricity.”

    So in 40 years, American electricity production is going to be entirely decarbonized (overlooking the fact that nuclear, for example, is not a zero-carbon energy source) and will, in addition, have expanded sufficiently to meet American heating needs, residential and commercial? And all you need to do that, and keep everyone happy with iPods, beer and porn, is to put in place the right incentives? OK.

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