There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.
Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.
Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.
One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.
One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.
Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.
Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.
Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.
Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.
Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.
If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?
In December 2015, countries from around the world met in Paris at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The key element of the resulting Paris Agreement was to keep ‘global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.’ At the same time it was agreed that the IPCC would conduct an analysis of what would need to be done to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The IPPC has just published its report.
The report, based on more than 6000 scientific studies, has been compiled by more than 80 of the world’s top climate scientists. It states that, with no additional action to mitigate climate change beyond that committed in the Paris Agreement, global temperatures are likely to rise to the 1.5°C point somewhere between 2030 and 2040 and then continue rising above that, reaching 3°C by the end of the century.
According to the report, the effects we are already seeing will accelerate. Sea levels will rise as land ice caps and glaciers melt, threatening low lying coastal areas; droughts and floods will become more severe; hurricanes and cyclones will become stronger; the habits of many animals will become degraded and species will become extinct; more coral reefs will die and fish species disappear; more land will become uninhabitable; more displacement and migration will take place, leading to political tensions and worse.
The problem of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. This is where people overuse common resources, such as open grazing land, fishing grounds, or, in this case, the atmosphere as a dump for emissions. They do so because there is little, if any, direct short-term cost to themselves. Instead, the bulk of the cost is borne by others – especially in the future.
There is another related tragedy, which has been dubbed the ‘tragedy of incumbents’. This is a political problem where people in power want to retain that power and do so by appealing to short-term selfish interests. The Trump administration lauds the use of energy as helping to drive the US economy and make people better off. To paraphrase Donald Trump ‘Climate change may be happening, but, hey, let’s not beat ourselves up about it and wear hair shirts. What we do will have little or no effect compared with what’s happening in China and India. The USA is much better off with a strong automobile, oil and power sector.’
What’s to be done?
According to the IPCC report, if warming is not to exceed 1.5℃, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and by 100% by around 2050. But is this achievable?
The commitments made in the Paris Agreement will not be nearly enough to achieve these reductions. There needs to be a massive movement away from fossil fuels, with between 70% and 85% of global electricity production being from renewables by 2050. There needs to be huge investment in green technology for power generation, transport and industrial production.
In addition, the report recommends investing in atmospheric carbon extraction technologies. Other policies to reduce carbon include massive reforestation.
Both these types of policies involve governments taking action, whether through increased carbon taxes on either producers or consumer or both, or through increased subsidies for renewables and other alternatives, or through the use of cap and trade with emissions allocations (either given by government or sold at auction) and carbon trading, or through the use of regulation to prohibit or limit behaviour that leads to emissions. The issue, of course, is whether governments have the will to do anything. Some governments do, but with the election of populist leaders, such as President Trump in the USA, and probably Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and with sceptical governments in other countries, such as Australia, this puts even more onus on other governments.
Another avenue is a change in people’s attitudes, which may be influenced by education, governments, pressure groups, news media, etc. For example, if people could be persuaded to eat less meat, drive less (for example, by taking public transport, walking, cycling, car sharing or living nearer to their work), go on fewer holidays, heat their houses less, move to smaller homes, install better insulation, etc., these would all reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, there is the hope that the market may provide part of the solution. The cost of generating electricity from renewables is coming down and is becoming increasingly competitive with electricity generated from fossil fuels. Electric cars are coming down in price as battery technology develops; also, battery capacity is increasing and recharging is becoming quicker, helping encourage the switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric and hybrid cars. At the same time, various industrial processes are becoming more fuel efficient. But these developments, although helpful, will not be enough to achieve the 1.5°C target on their own.
Videos and audio
- We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or face more floods
The Guardian, Nicholas Stern (8/10/18)
- Rapid, unprecedented change needed to halt global warming – U.N.
Reuters, Nina Chestney and Jane Chung (8/10/18)
- Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/10/18)
- New UN report outlines ‘urgent, transformational’ change needed to hold global warming to 1.5°C
The Conversation, Mark Howden and Rebecca Colvin (8/10/18)
- Earth’s temperature to rise 1.5C as early as 2030 amid dire warnings from UN climate panel
The Telegraph (8/10/18)
- UN Climate Change Report: Everything You Need To Know
Huffington Post, Isabel Togoh (8/10/18)
- Thirty years of the IPCC
Physics World (8/10/18)
- 13 things you should know about 1.5
Unearthed, Zach Boren (8/10/18)
- Climate change impacts worse than expected, global report warns
National Geographic, Stephen Leahy (7/10/18)
- World to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, says UN panel
Financial Times, Leslie Hook (8/10/18)
- We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (8/10/18)
- Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible – if there is political will
The Guardian, Christiana Figueres (8/10/18)
- The Trump administration has entered Stage 5 climate denial
The Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli (8/10/18)
- ‘Unprecedented changes’ needed to stop global warming as UN report reveals islands starting to vanish and coral reefs dying
Independent, Josh Gabbatiss (8/10/18)
- Explain the extent to which the problem of global warming is an example of the tragedy of the commons. What other examples are there of the tragedy?
- Explain the meaning of the tragedy of the incumbents and its impact on climate change? Does the length of the electoral cycle exacerbate the problem?
- With the costs of low or zero carbon technology for energy and transport coming down, is there as case for doing nothing in response to the problem of global warming?
- Examine the case for and against using taxes and subsidies to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using regulation to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using cap-and-trade systems to tackle global warming.
- Is there a prisoners’ dilemma problem in getting governments to adopt policies to tackle climate change?
- What would be the motivation for individuals to ‘do their bit’ to tackle climate change? Other than altering prices or using regulation, how might the government or other agencies set about persuading people to ‘be more green’?
- If you were doing a cost–benefit analysis of some project that will have beneficial environmental impacts in the future, how would you set about adjusting the values of these benefits for the fact that they occur in the future and not now?