Yet Canada’s PM Trudeau insists we can grow the economy and protect the environment. Is he wrong?
No 2379 Posted by fw, October 10, 2018
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“There is general appreciation that the driving force behind carbon dioxide emissions is the consumption of fossil fuels as a component of global economic activity. Our fearless leaders often aim to slow emissions by ‘decoupling’ the economy from fossil energy consumption, either by making the economy more energy efficient or by switching to renewable sources of energy. This approach seems very sensible and reasonable, at least at first glance. It offers policy makers the wonderful possibility of being able to have the cake and eat it too; to stimulate the economy while saving the planet. But as always, it helps to look at the data, and to keep in mind that very often ‘it ain’t necessarily so’”. —Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Oil refinery blows up in New Brunswick; Hurricane Michael lashes Florida; Gas line explosion in BC. Bad enough. But the following doesn’t help:
On the CBC’s National News of October 8, TV journalist Ian Humanising asked UK climate expert, Bob Ward* to “give us an example of a country that’s getting it right when it comes to trying to deal with climate change.” [*Video clip of exchange — fast forward to 10:15 minute mark].
Ward responded, in part: “… if you look at the United Kingdom, for example, since 1990 it’s reduced its annual emissions of greenhouse gases by more than 40% and its economy has expanded by more than 70%. So it shows you can expand economic growth and reduce greenhouse gases.”
The problem is, Ward’s answer is misleading. You see, as Garrett has pointed out elsewhere: “Nations do not exist in economic isolation. Through international trade the world shares and competes for collective resources. Quite plausibly, the only reason the UK appears to consume less energy is that it has outsourced the more energy intensive aspects of its economy to countries like China.” Moreover, says Garrett, “For the purpose of relating the economy to atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the only thing that matters is global scale emissions by civilization as a whole” — not the emissions of individual countries or regions.
Since Ian doesn’t know this, he accepts as true what Ward tells him. More to the point, Canadians watching this news item are likely to come away thinking that our PM is right when he keeps repeating that we can grow the economy and protect the environment. But have you noticed that he has never produced any quantitative evidence to support his fallacious claim — which raises the question, is he truly or wilfully ignorant? The same can be said of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
In a 2016 article, atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett, department head at the University of Utah, explains what’s wrong with claims like Bob Ward’s and Justin Trudeau’s. Here’s my brief summary of Garrett’s article, which is reposted below.
Climate change dangers impel change agents to push for moderating CO2 emissions. But international accords continue to fall on deaf ears. Why does humanity seem unable to alter behaviors that will lead to our demise? Some leaders claim we can “decouple” the global economy from fossil energy consumption by improving energy efficiency of the economy or by switching to renewables. However, the historical data affirm that absolute decoupling has never occurred on a global scale and probably never will. For at least 2000 years GDP increases have always corresponded with CO2 emission increases. There is no chance of reducing global CO2 levels without incurring a total collapse of the global economy. Humanity’s global infrastructure is designed to consume energy and this will continue unless we destroy the infrastructure. Without fossil fuel energy, the global economy as we know it would stop; our economy is wedded to CO2 emissions. Analogously, the exhalation of CO2 by civilization’s consumption of fossil fuels is not unlike humans exhaling CO2 from consuming carbon compounds in food.
My only minor complaint with Garrett’s article is that he does not always make clear to readers when he’s writing about a country’s economy and emissions and when he writing about events at a global level. Nevertheless, in the case of climate change, what happens at a country level feeds into what transpires at the global level. Garrett would not let Trudeau off the hook for Canada’s contribution to the rising level of global emissions,.
My repost, below, of Garrett’s article includes his three graphs, my added subheadings and text highlighting. Alternatively, read the piece on the University’s website by clicking on the following linked title.
Climate change dangers impel change agents to push for moderating CO2 emissions
As the world becomes increasingly aware of the present and future dangers of climate change, and policy makers and scientists make ever more urgent claims of the necessity for moderating emissions of carbon dioxide, international accords are put into place that offer to push civilization’s trajectory along a more favorable course, slowing the worst that is otherwise sure to come.
But international accords continue to fall on deaf ears
Yet, with each passing decade, the figure above shows that these accords seem to fall on deaf ears. A naive person might even argue (this is tongue-in-cheek of course) that international accords are the cause of rising CO2 levels: each accord seems to shorten the time it takes to pass each successive increment of 10 ppm.
It’s very depressing to realize that we seem so powerless. Perhaps, even, it begs the question of why we continue to bother sending herds of scientists, policy makers, and social activists to exotic and/or expensive locations, each doing their part to add to atmospheric CO2 concentrations by burning jet fuel, in the vain hopes of stalling the inevitable.
Why does humanity seem unable to alter behaviors that will lead to our demise?
At a deeper level, there is a more important question to consider. We must ask whether a more fundamental, underlying reason exists for why humanity seems unable to moderate behaviors that could very well lead to its own ultimate demise. We can’t really be that crazy, can we?
Some claim we can “decouple” the global economy from fossil energy consumption
It’s not as if we are ignorant. There is general appreciation that the driving force behind carbon dioxide emissions is the consumption of fossil fuels as a component of global economic activity. Our fearless leaders often aim to slow emissions by “decoupling” the economy from fossil energy consumption, either by making the economy more energy efficient or by switching to renewable sources of energy. This approach seems very sensible and reasonable, at least at first glance. It offers policy makers the wonderful possibility of being able to have the cake and eat it too; to stimulate the economy while saving the planet. What’s not to like?
Problem is, the historical data show a tight relationship between global CO2 levels and world’s total GDP for at least 2000 years
But as always, it helps to look at the data, and to keep in mind that very often “it ain’t necessarily so”. Consider the above plot, which shows the relationship between the atmospheric concentration of CO2 above a baseline of 275 ppm and the world’s total GDP, adjusted for inflation to 1990 dollars (see Garrett, 2012 for details). Data is taken from a mixture of ice cores for older dates and gas samples for newer dates.
What is immediately evident is that, on a log-log plot, there has been an extraordinarily tight relationship between GDP and CO2 concentrations for at least 2000 years. As long as we look at global scales, each ten-fold increase in GDP has always corresponded with an approximate four-fold increase in excess CO2.
If you prefer a linear plot, it works out to 2.6 ppm extra per trillion dollars of world economy since 1950. In fact, the relationship is so tight, that one could imagine (just for fun) switching the axes and concluding that one could measure the size of the global economy just using simple a CO2 sensor stationed in Hawaii.
There is no chance of reducing global CO2 levels without incurring a total collapse of the global economy
The point here is that there is nothing in the data to suggest that there is any potential for reducing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, at least not without a total collapse of the economy.
Just to be clear, the tight relationship between global CO2 levels and world’s total GDP is not a direct causal link
One does have to be careful, because finding a correlation between two things can often be a misleading. CO2 concentrations accumulate over time due to past actions whereas GDP represents our current actions. The two are inevitably linked, but it would not be correct to attribute direct causality.
What would have to happen in the future — that would be totally different from the past — for decoupling to happen?
Nonetheless, at the very least, we should be asking what would have to happen in the future that is fundamentally different from the past if decoupling is to happen.
To get an appreciation of the more detailed dynamics of the problem, how the past is linked to the present, along with forecasts for where civilization might be heading subject to fundamental physical constraints, the following two papers might be of interest:
No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change, Earth System Dynamics
Long run evolution of the global economy: 2. Hindcasts of Innovation and Growth, Earth System Dynamics
Humanity’s global infrastructure is designed to consume energy and this will continue unless we destroy the infrastructure
Reducing CO2 emissions may be a bit like asking an adult to once again become a child. Over millennia, we have collectively built an enormous global infrastructure designed to consume energy. Without destroying this infrastructure, energy will continue to be consumed.
Without fossil fuel energy, the global economy as we know it would stop; our economy is wedded to CO2 emissions
Without energy, the circulations defining the global economy stop. And because so much of this infrastructure is tied to fossil fuel consumption, our economy is wedded to CO2 emissions.
The exhalation of CO2 by civilization’s consumption of fossil fuels is not unlike humans exhaling CO2 from consuming carbon compounds in food
We as humans breath oxygen to access the energy that lies in carbon compounds within food, and exhale CO2 as a result. Not exhaling leads to death. Other than the detail that our primary source of energy is the carbon compounds within fossil fuels, is the exhalation of CO2 by civilization any different?
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