Pre-Covid 19, the climate change movement had gathered momentum with climate activist Greta Thunberg regularly in the news and people around the world striking in protest of inadequate government action on the climate crisis. However, now in a world overtaken by the pandemic, climate change is no longer at the centre and appears a more distant threat. The majority of the large climate change events due to take place this year have been delayed and policy announcements are aimed at supporting the current economic hardships. This is not surprising nor debatable, but there is a risk that, as Covid-19 dominates the news, policy and debates for a long time to come, this will overshadow any environmental initiatives that were due to be implemented.
Governments around the globe are navigating their economies through the pandemic and starting to think about the future road to recovery. However, there is an argument that it doesn’t have to be a case of ‘either or’, as there is the potential for policies to address the Covid-19 crisis and climate change at the same time. How policy makers respond now could shape the fight against climate change for the future. One of the lessons from the pandemic is that quick responses to high impact risks are vital to reduce costs. With that in mind, and given the costs of climate change, it is arguable that now is the best time to address its challenges.
Climate change and Covid
It is estimated that there was a total global loss of $3tn caused by natural disasters over the past decade. By 2050, cumulative damages from climate change are predicted to reach $8 trillion, impoverishing the world as a whole by 3% of GDP and the poorest regions by more. Climate activists argue that despite the economic consequences of climate change, the action taken by governments has been insufficient. In 2015, the then Bank of England governor, Mark Carney warned: ‘Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.’
However, since the pandemic struck all over the world, there have been positive consequences for the environment. Pollution levels started dropping fast as airlines grounded fleets, car travel came to a stop and industries shut down. With 2.6bn people living under restrictions under their country’s lockdown, there has also been an impact on the environment, not just the spread of the virus. Given that the lockdowns across the world have come at huge social and human costs, is now not the time to ensure that these improvements for the environment are not just temporary but ignite long-term changes?
Given the clear impacts and risks of Covid on peoples’ health, our ability to change our behaviour quickly has been striking. The importance of behaviour change has been brought to the centre and, arguably, it shows that we are capable of change when lives are at risk and are deemed more important than business-as-usual GDP growth. The application to climate change, however, is not as straightforward, as the costs to human lives are often viewed as a future problem.
Dr Laure de Preux, Assistant Professor of Economics at Imperial College Business School, highlights the important role that cooperation across borders plays in the face of a global crisis like Coronavirus, and how that can be applied to the fight against climate change.
The big challenges the world is facing, including the climate change crisis, can only be dealt with efficiently through international cooperation. We cannot only act individually; the benefits of our actions are multiplied if integrated into a global strategy. In the case of COVID-19, social distancing measures can only be truly effective if they are adopted at a large scale.
World leaders are aware that their economies now face one of the most severe recessions in history as a consequence of the coronavirus restrictions. Governments are going to have to dedicate huge budgets to enable the economic activity to resume again. This presents a unique challenge, but also a massive opportunity for global cooperation. The question to be asked, therefore, is that if these stimulus packages are a one-off chance to transform the economy, how should the government spend it and what should be their focus? Should the recovery policies focus on creating a greener economy?
The European Union unveiled what it is calling the biggest ‘green’ stimulus package in history. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, told European Parliament members that this issue is about all nations and it is bigger than any one of them. The deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Teresa Ribera, states that there is a greater risk by not acting in this way. She argues that if the recovery is not green, then it will be nothing but a short-cut to solve the current problems rather than a true economic recovery.
It is not just in Europe where the recovery has an environment focus. Joe Biden is believed to be planning a similarly huge green stimulus package for the US. The model echoes the vast investment projects of the New Deal that helped lift America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
There are sound economic reasons why politicians see green technology as a prudent investment. Renewable energy is now often cheaper than fossil fuels in large parts of the world and the technologies are proven and can be built at scale today. The argument for renewables providing a pathway for clean future growth is based on the logic of much of manufacturing – the more you produce, the cheaper it gets. However, China does not appear to have similar plans for their recovery. China produces almost a third of the world’s emissions, as much as the USA and the EU combined. At the annual National People’s Congress, there was no indication that the big expansion of coal-fired electricity generation would be reversed, even though it is also expanding the production of renewable energy. China expanded its coal-fired power stations as a key part of its stimulus package after the 2008 financial crisis.
The UK government receives ongoing pressure from energy companies. The boss of energy giant SSE, Alistair Phillips-Davies has warned that a failure to deal with climate change could eventually have a greater economic impact than coronavirus. SSE wants the UK government to encourage private investment in renewables by giving the green light to big new projects, such as hydrogen and carbon capture plants and boosting electric vehicles. Despite the impacts of climate change not being immediately felt in comparison to Covid-19, Phillips-Davies argues that a failure to deal with climate change could lead to great long-term impacts:
While it is still too early to predict with confidence the full human, social and economic impact of coronavirus, we can say with certainty that significant investment will be needed to rebuild the UK economy in its wake.
It is clear that any pandemic-induced financial decisions made over the next 12 months will shape the global economy for the next decade. The full impact of the virus on climate change will be determined by the world’s stimulus measures adopted post-pandemic. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the energy-intensive stimulus measures that followed, particularly in China, boosted emissions. Therefore, if we are to meet the reduction in emissions target our response needs to be green, helping to shape a sustainable future. Dr Alex Koberle, of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, argues that Governments should take time to reflect, learn from past mistakes and redirect development towards a sustainable future.
Shouldn’t growth be given priority?
With 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy worldwide reckoned to be in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods (according to the International Labour Organization), is now the right time to be focusing on the climate? Industries such as airlines and car manufacturing are strategic industries, employing millions of people. Headlines of longer-term environmental targets will be given less importance than headlines of job losses. Recovery relies on the government finding ways to employ lots and lots of people. There is a close relationship between real GDP, employment and energy consumption. Therefore, any policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, unless carefully directed, could reduce economic growth and employment for both less and more developed economies. Such policies would increase the cost of conventional energy sharply.
Critics of a green energy policy for recovery argue that investing in renewable energy ignores the adverse effects of reduced investment and higher energy costs in other sectors. By governments prioritising policy to focus on the environment, they could harm the ability of most people to improve their own circumstances, especially given the terrible economic shock caused by the lockdowns.
With the majority of news in recent months providing little joy, there has been at least the positive impact on the environment. However, advocates say it not a cause for celebration and warn that any benefits are likely to be short lived. There have been some positive behavioural impacts but the true test will be what happens in the recovery phase. If the focus is returned to business as usual what happens to the targets actioned prior to Covid-19?
The immediate priority of all governments right now is to control the pandemic and to save lives. As their policy interventions have an impact and economies start to emerge from this crisis, then there is an important debate to be had about how new investments can help create a cleaner, greener recovery. We have learnt from the current pandemic that changes can be made when consequences are imminent, however, climate change is a threat that doesn’t go away, and is arguably just as urgent. Solutions to both crises can be integrated into a coherent response to propel the global economy towards sustainable growth and increased resilience.
- Are government attempts to reduce the impact of climate change beneficial or harmful to UK firms?
- What policy instruments can the government use to increase economic activity?
- How does an increase in investment affect aggregate demand?
- What are the costs and benefits of economic growth?
- Why can climate change be described as a market failure?
In December, most of the countries of the world will meet in Paris at the 21st annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change. COP21 ‘will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.’
When the Copenhagen conference (COP15) ended in disagreement in 2009, few people thought that the increase in renewable energy would be anything like sufficient to prevent global temperatures rising more than 2°C. But things have dramatically changed in the intervening six years.
Solar power and other renewables have increased dramatically and the technology for the cleaner burning of fossil fuels, including carbon capture and storage, has developed rapidly.
But perhaps the most important change has been the attitudes of governments. No longer is it a case of Europe and other developed countries moving in the direction of renewables, while developing countries, and, in particular, China and India, argue that their economic development requires a rapid expansion of coal-fired power stations. Now China, India and many other emerging countries are rapidly developing their renewable sectors. This is partly driven by the fall in the costs of renewables and partly by worries that climate change will directly effect them. Now the ‘pro-coal’ countries are in a minority.
And industry is realising that significant profit is to be made from the development and installation of power plants using renewable energy. This is driving both R&D and investment. As the Telegraph article, linked below, points out, in 2009 ‘the International Energy Agency (IEA) was still predicting that solar power would struggle to reach 20 gigawatts by now. Few could have foretold that it would in fact explode to 180 gigawatts – over three times Britain’s total power output – as costs plummeted, and that almost half of all new electricity installed in the US in 2013 and 2014 would come from solar’.
So is this a good news story? Will real progress be made at COP21 in Paris? The articles explore the issues.
Paris climate deal to ignite a $90 trillion energy revolution The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (28/10/15)
OP21 deal critical for low-carbon economy Japan Times, Carlos Ghosn (29/10/15)
Is Solar Without Subsidies Now Viable? Oilprice.com, Michael McDonald (22/10/15)
The road to Paris and beyond Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (LSE), Rodney Boyd, Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern (August 2015)
Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (October 2015)
- What are the drivers for a move from fossil fuels to renewables? Are they similar dirvers in both developed and developing countries?
- What externalities are involved in energy production (a) from fossil fuels; (b) from renewables?
- What policies can be adopted to internalise the externalities?
- What are the merits and problems of a carbon trading scheme? What determines its effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions?
- Why are more and more investors moving into the renewable energy sector? Could this become a speculative bubble? Explain.
- How might game theory help to explain the process and outcomes of international negotiations over climate change and energy use?
Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?
In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.
‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.
… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’
Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:
‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’
The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)
- What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
- Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
- How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
- What social functions are filled by insurance?
- Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
- What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
- Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
- How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
- Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.
If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.
Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:
The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.
The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.
The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.
However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)
- Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
- Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
- What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
- If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
- What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
The UK hosted the third Clean Energy Ministerial conference on 25/26 April 2012. More than 20 energy ministers from around the world attended. In his address, David Cameron, gave his backing to more wind farms being built in the UK, both onshore and offshore.
Currently just under 10 per cent of the UK’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. But to meet agreed EU targets this must increse to at least one-third by 2020. Most of this will have to come from wind.
But whilst wind turbines create no CO2 emissions, electricity generated from wind is currently some 15% more expensive than from gas. To make wind power profitable, energy companies are required by law to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables and the cost is passed on to the consumer. This adds some £20 per year to the average household energy bill.
Over the coming years, many new power plants will have to be built to replace the electricity generated from older plants that reach the end of their life. So what types of plant should be built? Unfortunately measuring the costs and benefits from power generation is not easy. For a start, energy needs are not easy to predict. But more importantly, electricity generation involves huge environmental and social externalities. And these are extremely difficult to measure.
What is more, the topic is highly charged politically. The social costs do not fall evenly on the population. People might favour wind turbines, but they do not want to see one outside their window – or from their golf course!
The following videos and articles will give you some insight into the difficulties that any decision makers face in making the ‘right’ decisions about electricity generation
Webcasts and podcasts
Can Cameron still claim the ‘greenest government ever’? Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (26/4/12)
Energy Secretary: UK will meet green targets BBC News, Ed Davey (25/4/12)
Donald Trump attacks Scottish government’s green policy BBC News, James Cook (25/4/12)
Trump: Wind farms ‘bad for Scotland’ BBC News (24/4/12)
Tycoon Trump fights Scotland over wind farms near golf resortReuters, Deborah Gembara (25/4/12)
Wind power blows Siemens off course Euronews, Anne Glemarec (25/4/12)
Mexico inaugurates largest wind farm in Latin America BBC News, Carolina Robino (9/3/12)
BP’s Flat Ridge 2 Wind Farm in Kansas YouTube, BPplc (10/4/12)
Arnold Schwarzenegger: Green quest goes on BBC News (26/4/12)
Denmark Pioneers Clean Energy Green TV (18/4/12)
EU wind industry defies recession Green TV (16/4/12)
Wind Farm Issues – Compilation LiveLeak (15/4/12)
David Cameron commits to wind farms The Telegraph, Louise Gray (26/4/12)
David Cameron says wind energy must get cheaper The Telegraph, Louise Gray (27/4/12)
Could 2012 be year of the wind turbine? The Telegraph, Louise Gray (3/2/12)
Green energy vital, says David Cameron Independent, Emily Beament (26/4/12)
Cameron: renewables are ‘vital to our future’ businessGreen, Will Nichols and James Murray (26/4/12)
Green energy ‘must be affordable’ – Cameron BBC News (26/4/12)
Wind farms will kill tourism, says Donald Trump Independent (25/4/12)
Donald Trump accuses Salmond of ‘betrayal’ over wind farm plans The Telegraph, Simon Johnson (25/4/12)
Turbine scheme provokes wuthering gale of protest Independent, Mark Branagan (6/4/12)
Prince Charles endorses wind power in new film at Sundance Festival The Telegraph, Roya Nikkhah (29/4/12)
Study claims tourists ‘not put off’ by wind farms in Scotland BBC News (24/4/12)
Tide turns in favour of wave power instead of wind farms Scotsman, David Maddox (23/4/12)
Rush towards wind-generated electricity will not reduce fuel poverty Power Engineering (21/4/12)
Shell says no to North Sea wind power Guardian, Terry Macalister (26/4/12)
David Cameron, the Speech He Needs to Make Huffington Post, Juliet Davenport (25/4/12)
Campaigners want David Cameron to come clean over wind farm policy Western Daily Press (27/4/12)
Being Green Doesn’t Mean Higher Electricity Costs Says Green Energy UK DWPub (27/4/12)
Cost Benefit Methodology for Optimal Design of Offshore Transmission Systems Centre for Sustainable Electricity and Distributed Generation, Predrag Djapic and Goran Strbac (July 2008)
A Cost Benefit Analysis of Wind Power University College Dublin, Eleanor Denny (19/1/07)
Ecological and economic cost-benefit analysis of offshore wind energy Renewable Energy 34, Brian Snyder, Mark J. Kaiser (2009)
- Why is difficult to predict the future (financial) cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity generation by the various methods?
- Why is it difficult to estimate the demand for electricity in 10 years’ time?
- Identify the external benefits and costs of electricity generation from (a) onshore wind turbines; (b) offshore wind turbines.
- Is ‘willingness to pay’ a good method of establishing the value of external benefits and costs?
- What are the steps in a cost–benefit analysis?
- What types of problems are there in measuring external benefits and costs?