Saving The Planet On The Cheap

Last week, Krugman contended that it can be done:

I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.

He noted the “dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010.” But Michael Levi points out that the “optimistic cost estimates have little to do with cheap solar.” Those estimates are possible only when you figure in the impacts of nuclear power, carbon capture technology, abundant bioenergy, and increased efficiency:

Krugman does an important service by rebutting those on both the right and the left who claim that serious climate action requires turning our economic system upside down. (It’s a good guess that this Wednesday column from Mark Bittman, which basically called for the end of capitalism in order to deal with climate change, provoked Krugman to write his latest.) But the sorts of policies you pursue if you think that serious climate action is mostly about wind and solar are fundamentally different from those you pursue if you believe otherwise. A central upshot is that if the modeling exercises that Krugman touts are correct, and countries pursue policies based on a belief in wind and solar, the actual costs of cutting emissions will be far higher than what Krugman claims. At the same time, if the modeling exercises Krugman highlights are wrong, he hasn’t given us particularly strong reason to believe that steep emissions cuts would be cheap.

McArdle also throws cold water in Krugman’s direction. She hesitates to draw too many conclusions from the New Climate Economy study he cites:

The details are a bit fuzzy so far (the report promises more in a forthcoming technical appendix). But most of the benefit seems to come from reducing respiratory diseases in the developing world and ending fossil-fuel subsidies, which are, no matter what you may have heard on the Internet, also concentrated in the developing world, not the U.S. tax code. …

This is not to say that the report is wrong. But many of the people who read it seem to have come away saying, “OK, great, it’s free, why can’t we do it?” Even if this is a free lunch over the long term, it is not a free lunch right now to the people who would need to make major changes in their lives. No matter how long you point to the equations, they will resist.