For decades, climate activists have exhorted people in the wealthy West to change their personal behavior to cut carbon emissions. We have been told to drive less, to stop flying and, in general, to reduce consumption—all in the name of saving the planet from ever higher temperatures.

The Covid-19 pandemic has now achieved these goals, at least temporarily. With the enormous reduction in global economic activity, it has been as if people around the world suddenly decided to heed the activists and curtail their travel and consumption. Largely as a result of the crisis, the International Energy Agency recently concluded, “global CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8% in 2020, or almost 2.6 [billion tons], to levels of 10 years ago.”

It’s an unprecedented and impressive drop in emissions—by far the biggest year-to-year reduction since World War II. Unfortunately, it will have almost no discernible impact on climate change. Glen Peters, the research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway, estimates that by 2100, this year’s enormous reduction will bring down global temperatures by less than one five-hundredth of a degree Fahrenheit.

This is because, of course, the reduction will only last for this year and has come at immense economic and human costs. Most people are eager for the world economy to revive. New data published in the journal Nature show that China’s emissions returned to pre-pandemic levels in mid-May, and the U.S., India, EU and most of the rest of the world will likely soon follow suit.

A Tesla electric car charges up in Altamonte Springs, Fla., in January.

Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images

As this unexpected and painful experiment with radical emission cuts suggests, the popular idea that changing our patterns of consumption will have a meaningful effect on climate change is not realistic. People still have to eat, to heat and to travel, and the familiar pleasures that so many in the West enjoy remain aspirations for the billions of people who make do with much less.

Sadly, the vast majority of the actions that individuals can take in the service of reducing emissions—and certainly all of those that are achievable without entirely disrupting everyday life—make little practical difference. That’s true even if all of us do them. The U.K.’s former chief climate scientist, the late David MacKay, once wrote of carbon-cutting efforts: “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little bit helps.’ If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.”

Why is that the case? In the first place, the cuts are typically small—from, say, unplugging a phone charger or turning off the lights. And when they are more significant, they save us money, producing what behavioral economists call the “rebound effect”: When we save some cash by being more energy efficient, we spend the savings elsewhere, often in ways that lead to other emissions.

A problem with restricting our behavior for environmental reasons is that when we do something “good,” we allow ourselves to do something “bad” as a reward.

The most comprehensive study on this phenomenon was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in 2018. Researchers looked at a large number of different ways for individuals to cut emissions in Norway. They estimated not only the initial reduction in emissions but also how emissions would increase because of spending the saved money on other things.

Cutting food waste, for instance, lowers emissions but also reduces our grocery bill. The researchers found that the extra money would likely be spent on other goods and services whose carbon footprint canceled out the entire emissions reduction. Carpooling made more of a difference, with the cost savings only leading to 32% of the emissions reduction being lost. Sometimes, however, the rebound effect leaves us worse off overall. Someone who walks instead of taking the train, which doesn’t emit much carbon dioxide, saves a lot of money and uses it on other more carbon-intensive things. Across a wide range of activities, the study estimated that 59% of the emissions savings from “virtuous” behavior are lost to the rebound effect.

Another problem with restricting our behavior for environmental reasons is that, as in many areas of life, when we do something “good,” we allow ourselves to do something “bad” as a reward. This tendency is known as “moral licensing.”

Reusable grocery bags are packed as a ban on disposable plastic bags begins in Auckland, New Zealand, last July.

Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

A 2015 study published in the journal Social Influence found that people who have just donated to an environmental charity were less likely to behave in environmentally friendly ways afterward, likely because they felt they had now “done their bit.” A study presented to the Annual Conference of the Agricultural Economics Society in 2012 analyzed British shopping behavior and found that the more consumers purchase energy-saving lightbulbs, use eco-bags or reuse their own bags, the more likely their weekly shopping is to contain red meat and bottled water, whose carbon footprints are sizable.

The lockdown economy of recent months has made consumption less discretionary, more a matter of basic needs. We should expect old habits to return as economies revive. But this unexpected experiment with less consumption and lower emissions does put the challenge in perspective. Even with the dramatic drop in economic activity in recent months, the world will still emit about 35 billion tons of carbon in 2020. Achieving global “net zero” emissions in three decades, as a growing number of activists and politicians advocate, would require the equivalent of a series of ongoing and ever-tightening lockdowns until 2050.

Climate change is a real problem with substantial and growing overall negative impacts toward the end of the century, and those who are serious about it, from across the political and ideological spectrum, know that trying to change patterns of consumption is not nearly enough. Much more important will be developing a range of cheaper, cleaner energy sources.

Photovoltaic panels at Egypt’s Benban Solar Park, one of the world’s largest.

Photo: KHALED ELFIQI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

But in addressing the problem in all its complexity, we cannot ignore the inevitable trade-offs for human welfare. William Nordhaus of Yale, who in 2018 was awarded the first Nobel Prize for work in climate economics, has tabulated all of the estimates of climate-related economic damages from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and peer-reviewed studies to determine the total impact of different levels of global temperature increases. He found that, by 2050, the net negative impact of unmitigated climate change—that is, with current emissions trends unabated—is equivalent to losing about 1% of global GDP every year. By 2100 the loss will be about 4% of global GDP a year.

For comparison, what would it cost to reach net-zero by 2050, through cutting emissions and mandating new energy sources? So far, only one country, New Zealand, has commissioned an independent estimate. It turns out the optimistic cost is a whopping 16% of GDP each year by 2050. That projected figure exceeds what New Zealand spends today on social security, welfare, health, education, police, courts, defense, environment and every other part of government combined.

As this simple comparison suggests, suffering a 16% loss of GDP to reduce a problem estimated to cost 1% or even 4% of GDP is a bad way to help. That is especially true for the many parts of the world that are still in the early stages of economic development and desperately need growth to improve the lives of their impoverished populations.

Does that mean we simply give up on combating climate change? Not at all. Perhaps the smartest policy move would be to dramatically increase investment in green energy research and development. When green energy is costly, societies with many other pressing issues can’t afford the trillions to make that radical transition. If innovation can bring the price of green energy down below that of fossil fuels, everyone would want to switch.

Currently the U.S. and other rich countries spend very little on green innovation and waste trillions on inefficient feel-good policies like boosting this or that favored behavior or technology, from electric cars and solar panels to biofuels. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inadequacy of this piecemeal approach. What the world’s climate—and the world’s people—really need is an energy revolution.

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