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Well Duh: Study Blames ‘Business As Usual’ Growth For Climate Change

Factory pollution

Okay, perhaps “Well Duh” is a little unfair, but it does seem rather obvious. These kinds of studies do have to be carried out to prove the point, however, because it’s a finding nobody likes or really wants to confront – let alone take action on. Solutions are going to be difficult, to say the least.

A new study conducted by the University of Michigan, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science, has examined the evolution of atmospheric C02, widely acknowledged as the most important greenhouse gas and cause of climate change.

A researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, Tapia Granados, has concluded from the study,

“If ‘business as usual’ conditions continue, economic contractions the size of the Great Recession or even bigger will be needed to reduce atmospheric levels of CO2”.

The study assessed the impact of four factors on short-run, year-to-year changes in atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The factors studied included two natural sources of CO2: volcanic eruptions and the El Niño Southern oscillation. The research also considered the growing world population and the world economy, measured by worldwide gross domestic product (GDP).

The study found zero observable relation between short-term growth of world population (expected to hit 9 billion by 2050) and CO2 concentrations. I would argue that population growth undoubtedly drives emissions growth, because it also helps create more business activity and growth (more food and other living necessities needed, for example). As populations rise, more products are made to sell to more people, so more CO2 is created at almost every stage of that production and distribution process. That seems obvious to me.

But here’s the kicker. The study found that in years of above-trend world GDP, from 1958 to 2010, there were great increases in CO2 concentrations. For every trillion U.S. dollars that world GDP deviated from the trend, CO2 levels deviated from the trend by about half a part per million (ppm). CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been estimated to have been around 200-300 ppm before the industrial revolution began. Now they are getting close to 400 ppm. It is widely acknowledged that getting back down to 350 ppm would be a safe level in terms of having a more stable climate for generations to come. At this point, it will not be easy, we’re racing toward that 400 mark.

The study suggests that major changes will have to be made in economies around the world, toward a low-carbon future. Certainly, nobody wants a climate change-driven Great Recession, series of recessions, or a Depression. So when is the right time to get serious?

Granados points out that one of the scientists who has consistently warned of the effects of global warming since the early 1980s (for over 30 years now!), James Hansen, has proposed an economic solution that has promise. It’s different from the cap and trade/emissions trading schemes, and carbon taxes being proposed, and some in action, in various regions of the world. The plan does involve a carbon tax levied on CO2-producing business activity, to create incentives to drive the reduction of emissions and the fast development of clean technologies. However, all the money would be given to the people via regular direct payements into personal bank accounts, and the government would not get a dime.

Hansen has said that he thinks this is the only way the public would accept a carbon tax, and conceivably, the more someone reduces their carbon footprint by using cleaner alternatives, the more money from the payments they will be able to keep. Carbon intensive products and processes would become expensive, and gradually economically unviable for business. CO2 problem solved.

What do you think of this proposal? Is it better than others you’ve heard about? From what I’ve seen in the media over the past couple of years, I tend to think he’s right about the public not accepting a carbon tax unless all the money is distributed directly to the people.


Via Physorg
Image CC licensed by Monica McGivern

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