Comment on “The Green Lobby’s Misdirected Anger”

Yossi Sheffi, a Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, and Director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, recently wrote an article on Project Syndicate entitled “Green Lobby’s Misdirected Anger“. He argues that our current efforts to curb carbon emissions are insufficient to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C and suggests the only real alternative is geoengineering and nuclear fusion. I disagree.

Yossi Sheffi argues that we can either halt economic growth or develop a kind of Manhattan Project which is based on geoengineering and nuclear fusion.

He argues that green growth is wishful thinking as it “would require the world to reinvent the way economic activity is measured. And it would involve ethically dubious policies such as forced population control.” Furthermore, it would leave billions of people trapped in poverty. As such, he argues that geoengineering and nuclear fusion is the only real alternative.

His arguments supporting that green growth is wishful thinking are based on examples (such as McDonalds stopping to use straws) showing that our current efforts fall short of what is necessary to curb emissions. And he is absolutely correct: the world is doing too little.

However, his view of green growth seems to be very restrictive. It seems to consist of forced population control coupled with some way to reinvent the measurement of economic activity. Unfortunately he never explains what he means by reinventing the way we measure economic activity, or how he believes (or doesn’t believe) that would reduce CO2 emissions.

Thus, let me simply, from an economist’s perspective, note how economic activity is generally measured: We measure economic activity by determining the amount of a certain activity and its valuation (which is usually the market price at which a product is traded). This is, obviously nothing that is going to change. And I doubt anyone advocates a change in this way of measuring economic activity.

My guess is that he is thinking about measures such as inclusive growth, or genuine savings. However, these do not measure economic activity, they attempt to measure the wealth of a country. For example, if a country produces its current GDP from cutting down trees, then it increases its economic activity. This comes at the cost of natural capital (trees), and if those trees are cut down faster than they can regrow, then a country is transforming its natural capital into money. If the country uses this money to accumulate human capital or physical capital, or invests it into e.g. technology, then it is possible for the country to increase its overall wealth. However, this depends on whether these other types of capital are sufficiently substitutable with natural capital. Economists such as Partha Dasgupta, Robert Solow or Kenneth Arrow have written extensively on this. Thus, green growth is not about reinventing the way we measure economic activity – it is about measuring the wealth of a nation and not just its current production.

His other point, which he surprisingly seems to mingle with green growth, is that we also require forced population control. Most of the economists, and most research that I am aware of on green growth, does not include forced population control. It should be obvious that forced population control has nothing to do with the way we measure the economy, and neither with whether we produce in a green or in a brown way.

My overall impression is that what this author wants to argue is that we need social change, or a significant transformation to our way of thinking, in order to achieve sustainability. Nobody would argue with him. Nobody would also argue with him that current efforts are falling short of what is needed. But most would disagree that geoengineering and nuclear fission are the only alternative, or mutually exclusive to what we discussed above.

To be fair, he also added plant-based meat or alternatives to concrete for structures. I wonder inhowfar this is orthogonal to social change or the way we are trying to transform society. In my opinion not at all. Social change is all about transforming our society into producing and consuming in a way that minimizes externalities. Plant-based meat is something that economists such as Nicholas Treich would view as one means of minimizing externalities (though it is argued that the impact of reducing meat consumption is likely to be very low).

So let’s get back to geoengineering and nuclear fission. Nuclear fission  is easy to talk about: do we want to take the risk, even if it is a very small one, to have another Chernobyl, Fukushima, or Mayak? We have alternative means of producing energy (such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro) that are not in the form of introducing another intergenerational externality. And they are mostly competitive to nuclear energy. What is the reason for not developing these to the utmost extend?

Geoengineering falls into a similar category: Planting trees and carbon capture and storage are not orthogonal to social change or green growth. However, geoengineering in the form of e.g. solar radiation management is similar to nuclear fusion, namely a technology that introduces unknown or large risks. While it may be cheaper now to rely on measures such as solar radiation management, we already know right now that this is introducing unknown distributional effects of weather change, worrisome problems of political economy, strategic interaction (free driving), and significant constraints on the abilities of future generations to walk other paths. Do we really want to constrain our childrens’ future in this way? Especially since we have valid alternatives?

So it seems to me that Yossi Sheffi prefers some risks, i.e. those of nuclear accidents and uncertain impacts of solar radiation management, to those of climate change. Substituting some risks for other risks is, in my opinion, not a sign of his claimed “human ingenuity”, but instead a sign of human’s current unwillingness to cope with the original problem.

We have low-risk alternatives to nuclear fusion and solar radiation management, and we also have the ability to use our human ingenuity to transform society into a more sustainable one. Yes, this requires us to also re-think the way are doing business-as-usual right now. But we should see that as an opportunity and not an impossibility.

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