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Some good news on the global climate

January 3rd, 2018

I’ve published a couple of articles recently on climate issues. One, in Inside Story, is an expansion of a post here, making the case that 2017 was a good year for climate policy globally. One more item to add to the list: India’s additions of coal-fired generation capacity are running at the slowest pace since 2006.

The other, in New Matilda, was about the (lousy) economics of the Adani coal mine-rail-port project. It’s part of a series on the struggle against the mine by indigenous Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) people. Publication has been a bit slow, so my article doesn’t keep up with all the latest events, which seem likely to ensure that this disastrous project won’t proceed. The most important has been the split between Adani and its main contractor EDI Downer, one of a handful of companies with the expertise to run a mine on this scale. Adani’s current claim that it will operate the mine itself seems untenable, according to everything I’ve read.

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  1. Newtownian
    January 4th, 2018 at 09:53 | #1

    Sorry to be a Cassandra but this link concurrent sent to me from a friend says otherwise by virtue of taking the longer view rather than focusing on (selective?) short term developments… and hence may be of interest here:

    http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com

    This latest article by Bardi basically says
    a. the richer we (want to) become the more energy we will use and
    b. though energy utilization may become more green and efficient the trend of turning the world into economic ‘stuff’ still continues apace. So this is no time to get cocky about the sustainability of the future.

    Ugo Bardi being a chemist is probably better viewed as an ecological economist and other articles posted here are certainly in this vein.

    By contrast this (JQ) blog site falls under ‘environmental economics’ as with this item.

    The contrast reflects how hard science oriented folks such as Bardi tend to prioritize energy and material flows and ecological destruction as measures of good v. bad news regarding the economy ahead of conventional economic analyses and policies which continue to be viewed with deep scepticism.

    Though I prefer the latter this stand-off disappoints me continually as it feels like another of those green/left People’s Front of Judea v. the Judean’s People’s front where both ecological and environmental economics have much to offer but there continues to be a communication gulf.

    Perhaps in 2018 this will change??!! Unfortunately this would require a degree of cooperation and mutual respect from truth seeking that the current University system does not encourage with its promotion of competitive winner take all atitude to politics and resource allocation.

  2. John Quiggin
    January 4th, 2018 at 10:50 | #2

    Lots of problems with this analysis. A couple of big ones

    * He relies indirectly on projections from the IEA, which is committed to the view that “the richer we (want to) become the more energy we will use “. So, it’s unsurprising that’s what he finds

    * He seems to have completely missed Peak Coal, judging by the following quote “But [a reduction in oil use] would mean little to save humankind from a climate catastrophe if it is compensated by an increase in the production of energy from other dirty sources, say, coal” That’s (I think) the only mention of coal in the entire piece.

    I don’t think you’ve characterized the differences in perspective quite correctly, but I’ll have to come back to this.

  3. Ikonoclast
    January 4th, 2018 at 11:05 | #3

    @Newtownian

    The divide you point to possibly correlates with the divide between ecomodernists and ecosocialists. Environmental economics is broadly underpinned by the philosophical-ideological position of ecomodernism. “Ecological economics” (including thermoeconomics or biophysical economics) is perhaps underpinned by some of the philosophical-ideological ideas of ecosocialism or else it may be largely free of philosophical-ideological content in its more hard science variants. Ecosocialists certainly pay more heed to the warnings of biophysical economics and the sciences in general. At the bottom of this post, I place some quotes as definitions.

    To me, ecomodernists seem to be uncritical of, and lacking in due caution about technological fixes. I believe they do not pay enough attention to the issue of unforeseen consequences from technological fixes and seemingly endlessly increasing production. For every problem caused by technology and/or high capitalist production they basically advocate more technology and more capitalist production. This is somewhat akin to pharmaceutical over-prescription where too much of and too many drugs are prescribed to the patient. The patient is put on a roundabout of having more and more drugs prescribed with later additions prescribed to deal with the side-effects of earlier prescriptions. Complex drug interactions occur often with unforeseen and deleterious consequences.

    We can see the same effects with prescriptions for more technology and more capitalism. The environment is suffering serious side-effects from too much technology and too much production and yet the answer consistently offered is more technology and more production. It’s a capitalism-centric view. Adherents are wedded to capitalism as a system and to the endless expansion of production. Their interests are contained in this sphere and they cannot or will not envisage any alternatives.

    Ecosocialists on the other hand emphasise the need to seek eventually, and maybe even soon, a steady and sustainable state of material production and human population. Knowledge and technology may continue to increase but the latter needs to be of lower impact on the natural world. Reliance on environmental services (from large regional natural state ecosystems) is to be preferred over sweeping techno-“fixes” and geoengineering solutions.

    Ecosocialists recognise that production must be democratic-socialist in nature, and not capitalist-elitist in nature. Ecosocialists (often as “Greens”) have diagnosed that the required changes simply cannot and will happen under a capitalist system. Capitalism, as a system, is completely predicated upon the endless expansion of production, the commodification of nature, then the subsequent destruction of nature and its replacement with technological fixes and services. This model is not sustainable. Capitalism in destroying nature will destroy one essential part of its basis which is free commodities and services from nature.

    The bottom line is that we are not as “smart” as nature. Technically, nature is not smart of course, rather it is emergent and evolutionary. The complexity of entire natural emergent/evolutionary systems is greater than we can ever model with all our intelligence and all our tools. Rather then the hubris of ecomodernism we need to show due caution and respect for, and in dealing with, natural systems. We need to live in a world with large, preserved natural systems (outside the urban and agricultural areas) to provide natural services. A more modest global population of humans may be necessary to do this. Because we are not as “smart” as nature we need to preserve large swathes of it. Ecoservices will be provided in a more balanced, sustainable and safer manner by evolved natural ecosystems than by eco-fixes and geoengineering which run a high risk, probably a certainty, of catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

    Afterword – Definitions.

    “Ecomodernism is an environmental philosophy which argues that humans can protect nature by using technology to “decouple” anthropogenic impacts from the natural world.” – Wikipedia.

    “We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.” – Ecomodernist Manifesto.

    “Ecomodernism explicitly embraces substituting natural ecological services with energy, technology, and synthetic solutions. Among other things, ecomodernists embrace agricultural intensification, genetically modified and synthetic foods, fish from aquaculture farms, desalination and waste recycling, urbanization, and substituting denser energy fuels for less dense fuels (e.g. substituting coal for wood, and preferably getting all energy from progressively lower carbon technologies such as fossil fuel power plants equipped with carbon capture and storage, nuclear power plants, and advanced renewables). Key among the goals of an ecomodern environmental ethic is the use of technology to intensify human activity and make more room for wild nature.” – Wikipedia.

    “Eco-socialism, green socialism or socialist ecology is an ideology merging aspects of socialism with that of green politics, ecology and alter-globalization or anti-globalization. Eco-socialists generally believe that the expansion of the capitalist system is the cause of social exclusion, poverty, war and environmental degradation through globalization and imperialism, under the supervision of repressive states and transnational structures.[1][page needed]

    Eco-socialists advocate dismantling capitalism, focusing on common ownership of the means of production by freely associated producers, and restoring the commons.”

  4. John Quiggin
    January 4th, 2018 at 12:39 | #4

    ” Ecosocialists (often as “Greens”) have diagnosed that the required changes simply cannot and will happen under a capitalist system.”

    We’ve been over this ground before, I think, but that’s obviously a counsel of despair. We need to reduce CO2 emissions drastically, starting now and completing the job by 2050. I’m sufficiently optimistic to hope that, by 2050, those of us who are still around will have seen some radical and progressive social changes, perhaps amounting to the end of capitalism, or, at least, capitalism as we know it.

    Whether or not that’s right, the hard work will have to be done under capitalism. The claim that it *can’t* be done under capitalism seems implausible given that most developed countries are already reducing emissions without any obvious impact on living standards. The question of whether it *will* be done is more one of politics than of economics at this point.

  5. Cameron Pidgeon
    January 4th, 2018 at 14:13 | #5

    @Newtownian

    You basically restate in different terms the “Realos vs Fundos” debate, the split that has existed in Green politics ever since Green parties have had serious presence in any parliament. It most famously emerged in dramatic fashion in Germany when Die Gruen formed a part of the SPD lead government of the early nineties lead to the fundos, led by Petra Kelly, splitting from the realo led party. Until the recent dispute with the NSW party, the debate hasbeen managed out of site and relatively harmoniously by the Australian Greens. The Fundos are right about the ultimate aims, the realos are right about the need to at least start with the current system. Simultaneous economic and ecological change is needed because the means and outcomes are largely complementary and because, as JQ writes, we are running out of time.

  6. Ikonoclast
    January 4th, 2018 at 14:24 | #6

    I should have been a bit more careful in what I wrote.

    What I should have said was “The required changes cannot happen fast enough under a capitalist system”. This is more consistent with what I have written in the past and it’s also consistent with the real world evidence to date. I’ve written in this blog about capitalism’s “look-ahead” system where it changes things via relatively short term price signals. These price signals don’t look far enough ahead to change a system (say the energy system) before some significant environmental and climate damage is done and more momentum towards serious damage has already been built in to the system.

    Of course, we have science, we have a mixed economy and we have (some) social democracy. The science looks further ahead and social democracy working on the mixed economy provides some pressure for changes beyond what capitalist economics signals. To date, the results of this set of systems has been too little change too late. It is clearly too late to prevent some concerning damage. Some damage has already been done to the atmosphere, climate and ecological systems and it has indeed reached concerning levels. This is indisputable. Whether this has made a progression to catastrophic damage unavoidable from this point is still disputable.

    In my view, the retrenchment of capitalism (via its replacement by democratic socialism) and progress to true ecological sustainability will have to proceed hand in hand. This is not a counsel of despair unless you think capitalism is “un-dethroneable”. Deep down, most of us have difficulty believing, or even envisaging, that capitalism could ever be overthrown or replaced. I myself have difficulty believing it can be overthrown or replaced by humans purely out of science, wisdom and foresight. I think it more likely that natural systems will in essence provide the revolutionary impetus for us and to us. When this system becomes patently unsustainable it will be superseded by a new system devised by humans, not without great pains of adjustment… or else by an unstoppable breakdown to a much reduced state of post-capitalist barbarism.

    It’s interesting that most popular dystopian science fiction cannot envision anything but the continuing grip of authoritarian corporate capitalism coupled with ongoing environmental and human degradation. Continuum and Killjoys are two small-screen examples. The Hunger Games was the same at first and then a little different at the end. It did show a people’s revolution as the necessary final step.

  7. January 4th, 2018 at 19:38 | #7

    @Cameron Pidgeon
    The crucial success of realist Greens in Germany in getting broad acceptance of an energy transition, passing the EEG, and putting high and declining FITs for renewables in place, proves conclusively that green realism is right. They may just have saved the world, and certainly have given us a fighting chance.

  8. January 4th, 2018 at 19:43 | #8

    The last time Coal Plant Tracker issued an update on Indian coal generation, in July, the pipeline of new plants under construction had shrunk to 43 GW. Bloomberg’s news that under 1 GW was opened in the last 8 months suggests that most of the 43GW is in fact dead. New update needed!

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