Economists debate decarbonization: optimistic and pessimistic scenarios

debate forum , Is Green Growth Possible? was hosted by the Institute for New Economic Thinking in December, consisting of papers by  economists debating whether catastrophic global warming can be stopped while maintaining current levels of economic growth. The arguments are summarized  for the non-economist in “The Case for ‘conditional optimism’ on climate change” by David Roberts in Vox (Dec. 31) .  Economists may be interested in the full papers, which  include “The Road to ‘Hothouse Earth’ is Paved with Good Intentions” and “Why Green Growth is an Illusion”, both by Enno Schröder and Servaas Storm.  The authors conclude that  “..  The world’s current economies are not capable of the emission reductions required to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees. If world leaders insist on maintaining historical rates of economic growth, and there are no step-change advances in technology, hitting that target requires a rate of reduction in carbon intensity for which there is simply no precedent. Despite all the recent hype about decoupling, there’s no historical evidence that current economies are decoupling at anything close to the rate required…. Without a concerted (global) policy shift to deep decarbonization, a rapid transition to renewable energy sources, structural change in production, consumption, and transportation, and a transformation of finance, … the decoupling will not even come close to what is needed.”

The Inconvenient Truth about Climate Change and the Economy”  by  Gregor Semieniuk, Lance Taylor, and Armon Rezai summarizes and analyzes the October 2018 IPCC report, Global Warming of 1.5 °C. ,  finding it overly optimistic about global productivity growth and fossil fuel energy use, and reiterating the argument that politics are holding back climate change solutions. They conclude that “a big mitigation push, perhaps financed by carbon taxes and/or reductions in subsidies, is possible macroeconomically even if the link between energy use and output is not severed. This, however, would require considerable modifications of countries’ macroeconomic arrangements. Needless to say, military establishments and recipients of energy subsidies wield political clout. Fossil fuel producers have at least as much. Whether national preferences will permit big shifts in the use of economic resources is the key question.”

Finally, in “Conditional Optimism: Economic Perspectives on Deep Decarbonization”, author Michael Grubb  takes issue with Schröder and Storm, saying that their papers rely on historical data and rates of change, and thus are characterized by a “pessimism about our ability to change what matters fast enough. ” Grubb states that this “may  be emblematic of a growing trend in energy-climate economics, of what we might term historical futures analysis.”  He lays out a  technical economic critique and suggests four fundamental principles for his own “conditional optimism”, which relies on analysis based on the rate of displacement of carbon intensive energy supply by the growth of alternate sources.

Oil Sands update: Trans Mountain will undergo new NEB Review – but watch out for the new Frontier mine

On September 21, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources announced that the federal government has begun its path forward after the Court of Appeal decision on August 30 which stopped the Trans Mountain Pipeline.  The press release states:    “we have instructed the National Energy Board (NEB) to reconsider its recommendations, taking into account the effects of project-related marine shipping. The NEB will be required to complete a thorough and prompt review and deliver its report within 22 weeks.”… and “…the NEB will provide participant funding so that the views of Indigenous groups are well represented in the Board’s consideration of marine issues.” The National Energy Board website provides official news of the new Order in Council here

A CBC report on September 21 summarizes the government action and reactions:  “Ottawa gives pipeline regulator 22 weeks to review Trans Mountain expansion project” ; in it,  the Minister  promises a further announcement on improved consultations with First Nations (one of the two grounds cited by the Court of Appeal for quashing the project).

Other reactions:

Although her office hasn’t released an official statement, Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley has taken a hard line in media interviews,  as reported by  CBC on Sept 21) :  “We will not tolerate legal game playing,”… “And should it start to appear that game playing is working, we will hold Ottawa’s feet to the fire.”

From federal Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer: “Ottawa needs ‘special representative’ to consult Indigenous groups and save Trans Mountain, says Scheer” (Sept. 24);  From B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, a press release limited to cautious acknowledgement; and from Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, as quoted in The Straight (Sept. 25) : it would be “a win-win-win” to move the terminal from Burnaby to Delta, thus avoiding concerns about tanker traffic in the sensitive Burrard Inlet (but not addressing any concerns to “keep it in the ground”).

West Coast Environmental Law has written a thorough summary of the August Court of Appeal decision , and suggested questions for the coming review.  Ottawa is also facing a call from Washington State for  improved oil spill protocols for the part of the Trans Mountain pipeline which passes through the Puget Sound, according to the National Observer  (Sept 25).

“Colossal” new oil sands mine:  But as all eyes are on the progress of this Trans Mountain review, another enormous oil sands project is under consideration.  “Hearings begin today into a $20-billion oilsands mine that’s even bigger than the massive Fort Hills”  in The Financial Post (Sept. 24), reporting the on a five-week, joint-review panel regulatory hearing by Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and Alberta Energy Regulator into the development of the Frontier oilsands mine by Teck Resources.   The Narwhal analysis describes the Frontier mine as “ a colossal undertaking that relies on ‘relentless’ growth in world oil demand at a time of global climate precarity”.  Read “One of the largest oilsands mines ever proposed advances to public hearings” from The Narwhal for background and discussion of the potential impact, including the economic arguments, for this new development.

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung releases studies of “radical realism” for climate justice

Radical realismIn September, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung of Berlin  released a  compilation of eight reports, titled Radical Realism for Climate Justice   – “ a civil society response to the challenge of limiting global warming to 1.5°C while also paving the way for climate justice. Because it’s is neither ‘naïve’ nor ‘politically unfeasible’, it is radically realistic.”  Individual chapters, each available from this link , are written by a variety of international organizations and individuals.  Of particular interest are the two from Canadian authors:  System Change on a Deadline. Organizing Lessons from Canada’s Leap Manifesto and  Modelling 1.5°C-Compliant Mitigation Scenarios without Carbon Dioxide Removal,  by Christian Holz of Carleton University in  Ottawa.  Also of especial relevance for Canadians:  A Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production : The Paris Goals Require No New Expansion and a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production   by Oil Change International,  and Another Energy is Possible by Sean Sweeney.

In Chapter 5,  System Change on a Deadline. Organizing Lessons from Canada’s Leap Manifesto  authors Avi Lewis, Katie McKenna and Rajiv Sicora provide a broad-brush summary of the history and growth of The Leap movement, beginning with its launch in Toronto in 2015, tracing the need for coalition building, and concluding with a statement of its international potential, and its application in Los Angeles.

Chapter 8 , Modelling 1.5°C-Compliant Mitigation Scenarios without Carbon Dioxide Removal,  is by Christian Holz, a post-doctoral fellow in Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University. His chapter  reviews the recent technical studies about Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Bioenergy combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technologies, which some see as the route to  achieving the  1.5°C global warming target. Holz’ assessment is that 1.5°C  can be achieved without relying on on these technologies, “if national climate pledges are increased substantially in all countries immediately, international support for climate action in developing countries is scaled up, and mitigation options not commonly included in mainstream climate models are pursued.”

Chapter 1, A Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production : The Paris Goals Require No New Expansion and a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production   by Oil Change International is an update of its 2016 publication, The Sky’s the Limit , which makes the “keep it in the ground” case. For Canadians still reeling from the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, this new report is a timely reminder of the dangers of continued investment in exploration and expansion of oil, coal and gas and the need for Just Transition policies.

Another Energy is Possible by Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy is a tight summary of his assessment that current energy policies are allowing energy consumption to continue to grow. Sweeney calls for  a two-pronged solution: “ a shift in policy towards a «public-goods» approach that can liberate climate and energy policy from the chains of the current investor-focused neoliberal dogma, where the private sector must lead….  and … a shift towards social ownership and management so that energy systems can be restructured and reconfigured to serve social and ecological needs.”  Sweeney states: ” The next energy system must operate within an economic paradigm that is truly needs-based and sustainable.”

The other worthy chapters of Radical Realism for Climate Justice  are:  Zero Waste Circular Economy: A Systemic Game-Changer to Climate Change by Mariel Vilella of Zero Waste Europe;  Degrowth – A Sober Vision of Limiting Warming to 1.5°C by Mladen Domazet of the Institute for Political Ecology in Zagreb, Croatia; La Via Campesina in Action for Climate Justice by the international peasants movement La Via Campesina, and Re-Greening the Earth: Protecting the Climate through Ecosystem Restoration by Christoph Thies of Greenpeace Germany.

Ford government sued by Greenpeace for cancellation of cap and trade without consultation

Doug FordUpdated September 11:

On September 11, CBC News broke the news that “Greenpeace suing Ontario government over cancellation of cap-and-trade program” The lawsuit was filed  in Ontario Superior Court by EcoJustice and the University of Ottawa’s Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic.  It asks the Court to quash the legislation, on the grounds that the Conservative government “unlawfully failed” to hold public consultations before cancelling  the program, as required by Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights. An expedited hearing on the matter has been granted and scheduled for September 21.  The EcoJustice press release of September 11 is here .

At issue is Bill 4, The Cap and Trade Cancellation Act, 2018 , introduced in July to honour a campaign pledge to repeal Ontario’s cap and trade program, authorized through the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act, 2016  of the previous Wynne government.  Yet as the National Observer  reported on August  15, “Ontario legislature adjourns without adopting Ford government bill to cancel cap and trade” .  The article also compiles expert opinion and reaction to the move, and notes  that the government will be expected to propose new greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets when the Ontario legislature returns for its fall sitting on Sept. 24.

In “Ford government does U-turn, expands electric vehicle rebates for Tesla buyers”  (Aug. 31), CBC reports on another Court case involving the rookie Ford government.  The Court ruled against the government and in favour of  Tesla, which had claimed that it had been discriminated against when the government discontinued electric and hybrid vehicle sales incentives.   The CBC quotes Sara Singh, an Ontario NDP MP, who stated in August:  “This is likely only the first of many decisions against the Ford government’s decision to rip up hundreds of cap-and-trade and green energy contracts.” The Huffington Post compiled a list the legal actions against the government, on a variety of fronts, on Sept. 5.

Others who have weighed in on Ford’s climate and energy policies: Climate Action Network, along with 37 signatories,  sent an Open Letter to Premier Ford  on August 8.  It documents the heat and fire emergencies throughout the province in the summer of 2018, and calls for a public commitment, along with a detailed plan,  to achieve Ontario’s existing legislated emissions reduction goals.  Environmental Defence maintains an online petition calling for similar action.

Regarding Ford’s cuts to renewable energy programs: A widely-cited article appeared in Forbes magazine: “Ontario’s Economic Investment Outlook Dims With New Government Energy Actions”  (Aug. 13)   (and was re-posted by the Pembina Institute )  stating:  “In one fell swoop Ontario’s government has dramatically slashed a source of funding for clean transportation infrastructure to help consumers lower travel costs, erased hundreds of clean energy projects to help consumers reduce electricity costs, dimmed the prospects for jobs and economic growth from clean tech industries, and took a major step backwards in making the province an attractive climate for business and investment today – and into the future.”

Global Commission proposals for clean growth forecasts 65 million new low-carbon jobs in 2030

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate released its 2018 flagship report at the G20 meetings in Argentina  on September 5 . Under the title, Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century: Accelerating Climate Action in Urgent Times , the report acknowledges that all models are imperfect, but its extensive research and modelling predicts that its “bold climate action” prescription could deliver at least US$26 trillion in economic benefits through to 2030, and over 65 million new low-carbon jobs in 2030, as well as avoid over 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution.  As the final point in its action road map, it calls for Just Transition measures and a role for civil society and trade unions in their creation.

The report is structured around a sectoral approach, focused on energy, cities, food and land use, water, and industry. Across those economic sectors, every chapter hammers the theme of urgency, calling this the world’s “use it or lose it moment”. “The decisions we take over the next 2-3 years are crucial because of the urgency of a changing climate and the unique window of unprecedented structural changes already underway. The world is expected to invest about US$90 trillion on infrastructure in the period up to 2030, more than the entire current stock today. …. Investing it wisely will help drive innovation, deliver public health benefits, create a host of new jobs and go a long way to tackling the risks of runaway climate change. Getting it wrong, on the other hand, will lock us into a high-polluting, low productivity, and deeply unequal future. “

Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century  calls for the following urgent actions:

  1. “governments should put a price on carbon and move toward mandatory climate risk disclosure for major investors and companies.”  (Specifically, the carbon price for the G20 economies should be at least US$40-80 by 2020, with a predictable pricing pathway to around US$50-100 by 2030, accompanied by a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies and harmful agricultural subsidies and tax-breaks by 2025);
  2. all economies should place much greater emphasis on investing in sustainable infrastructure as a central driver of the new growth approach;
  3. “ the full power of the private sector and innovation needs to be harnessed.” (Specifically, “ By 2020, all Fortune 500 companies should have science-based targets that align with the Paris Agreement.”  Governments need to change regulations, incentives and tax mechanisms that are a major barrier to implementing a low-carbon and more circular economy, and public-private partnerships should be encouraged.
  4. “a people-centred approach is needed to ensure lasting, equitable growth and a just transition. It is good economics and good politics.”….“All governments should establish clear Energy Transition Plans to reach net-zero energy systems, and work with energy companies, trade unions, and civil society to ensure a just transition for workers and communities. Successfully diversifying local economies as we shift away from coal and eventually other fossil fuels will require multi-stakeholder dialogue, strategic assistance, re-training, and targeted social protection.”

The Global Commission  is comprised of government leaders, academics, and business leaders, including Sharan Burrow of the ITUC, and Lord Nicholas Stern. Established in 2013, the Commission published its first, landmark report in the New Climate Economy initiative in 2014:  Better Growth, Better Climate , which established its position that there is no trade-off between growth and strong climate action. In addition to the annual policy document, international climate issues are published  in a Working Paper series, available here .