Citizen Action Monitor

Policy makers seduced by economists’ claims that climate change can be fixed, economic growth can continue

Twenty-five years of failed UN-led climate change negotiating has brought humanity to a precipice.

No 2025 Posted by fw, August 07, 2017

“Running out of planet.” That’s the title Tim Jackson chose for section 6 of Chapter 1 of his book Prosperity Without Growth.

Jackson credits his title to Bill McKibben’s 2007 book, Deep Economy:

Even before we run out of oil, we’re running out of planet. One consequence of nearly three hundred years of rapid economic growth has been stress on the natural world: we’ve dug it up, eroded it away, cut it down.”

The synopsis below recounts how government policy makers were seduced by economists’ claims that climate change can be fixed, economic growth can continue. Twenty-five years of failed UN-led climate change negotiating, culminating in the 2015 Paris Agreement which committed 200 signatories to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. We are now faced with a formidable challenge – a carbon budget that will be depleted within a decade if we continue to release emissions at our current rate.

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Running out of planet: a synopsis, excerpted from Chapter 1 of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without GrowthRoutledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Government policy makers seduced by economists’ claims that climate change can be fixed, economic growth can continue.

In 2015, the Stockholm Resilience Centre reported that nine critical planetary boundaries, or tipping points, if crossed, would signify the onset of unacceptable environmental change, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity. Four of these boundaries had already been crossed, including climate change.

In the late 1980s, US climate scientist, James Hansen, brought the threat of climate change to the world’s attention.

Economist Nicholas Stern’s 2006 review of the economics of climate change captured the attention of government policy makers with news that climate change can be fixed and economic growth can go on as usual. Two more reports, in 2011 and 2014, echoed this message, promising “green growth” – that is, economic growth with lower carbon emissions.

As the history of climate policy has demonstrated, the economists’ promising forecasts were too good to be true.

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Twenty-five years of failed UN-led climate change negotiating

The 1992 Kyoto Protocol was welcomed as a first step in halting climate change, with a goal to cut carbon emissions by 5% below 1990 levels before 2012. But, by 2015, emissions were over 60% higher than 1990, and were being released at a rate faster than the last 66 million years.

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord’s “inspiration goal” of keeping global warming below 2°C was a flop. In 2015 temperatures were at a record-setting 1°C higher than 1850 when records were first recorded.

Succeeding UN commitments continued to fall far short of the 2°C target, culminating in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Although Paris failed to deliver substantive commitments, after 25 years of negotiating, the 200 signatories at COP21 did commit to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. Now begins the challenging work of achieving that ambitious goal.

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We are now faced with a formidable challenge

To reach that 1.5°C goal, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has calculated that the “maximum available ‘carbon budget’ between now and the end of the century is only 350 billion tons.”

Moreover, this budget would be depleted within a decade if we continue to release emissions at our current rate.

What makes matters even worse is that we can’t get alternative zero carbon energy supplies up to scale fast enough to replace carbon-burning fossil fuels.

Bottom line, as Jackson notes: “Long before we run out of oil, coal and gas, we will have to stop extracting them from the ground and burning them, if dangerous climate change is to be averted.”

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