Yesterday someone said to me: “Environmentalism is dead. The green movement has failed. Climate change is a technical problem and the solution to it is technological.”
There was something I didn’t like about that.
Some of my objection is emotional. I just don’t like the technological approach. I don’t like big kit. I don’t like the fact that you need big companies to build and operate big kit. I don’t like big companies or the institutions which fund them. They are bad for humanity.
It’s not very scientific to disagree with something for just emotional reasons. Then I figured that the technology-only approach might be less reasonable than it appears, since it, too, comes down to hunches. Hunches on two things: Incentives and build-out.
Broadly, the technology approach is to create economic incentives to encourage people to switch from carbon intensive technology to low carbon technology. Meanwhile, in the knowledge of those incentives and supported directly or indirectly by them, clever people come up with better and better technologies. Eventually the whole world is using low carbon technology and we breathe a sigh of relief.
We should question these two core elements of current climate change policy: (i) incentives and (ii) the development and implementation of technology.
First, incentives. The main incentive used in policy is to put a price on carbon emissions. We don’t know what happens when the price of carbon goes up to €40 or more because it has never actually been there. We expect that investors will pursue low-carbon technologies if they are confident about incentives; but we can’t be sure they will be convinced by fickle politics. We do know that when the price of oil goes up a lot, a few people start using their cars less. But we also know that when fuel duties go up then lorry drivers in England and tractor drivers in France start being disorderly.
So whether incentives will lead to innovation or riots or just have no effect seems to be based on a hunch. Have we seen numbers on this?
Second, the development and implementation of technology. I can believe that we will come up with better and better technologies. But implementation is where it falls down. We are talking mainly about renewable energy generation and efficient use of energy, industrial processes and agriculture. The challenge is something like this: we have x years within which to replace y pieces of infrastructure around the world.
How long does it take to develop a technology? How long does it take to reform markets so that new technology can be introduced despite the grumblings of incumbents (who will have to write off stranded assets)? How long does it take for infrastructural technology to spread around the world and replace all the energy inefficient assets (hint: houses, factories and power stations are bigger than, cost more than and have longer lives than mobile phones and Facebook accounts)?
It would be good to see some numbers showing that the time it takes for all that to happen is less than the time we have available to cut emissions.
These are some things, then, where we should work hard to get clear facts and figures to support the hunches:
– comprehensive data about the price elasticity of demand for energy (by country and culture)
– analysis about when it is that pricing has good outcomes (innovation) and when it has bad outcomes (riots)
– data on the rate of spread of infrastructural technologies, and perhaps
– the relationship between the size of incentives and the speed at which the incentivised technology spreads
I don’t know if policy makers have this data. That would be fair enough if they don’t, given the novelty of the situation. But if we are working on hunches, it would help to be open about that and be more ready to consider other hunch-based approaches.