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Climate Titans Clash on Cost, Complexity of Low-Carbon Transition

Renowned climate analysts David Roberts of grist.org and Joseph Romm of the Climate Progress blog are locked in an online debate about what it will cost to reach a deep decarbonization target, and how easy the transition will be.

Roberts opened the argument in a January 26 column that takes Romm and Nobel economist Paul Krugman to task for accepting the IPCC’s calculation [1] that its low-carbon goals can be met with an 0.06% reduction in economic growth, calling the notion “utterly fantastical.”

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The IPCC’s economic models “are just this side of wild guesses, based on assumptions about economic growth, resource prices, and technological development decades in the future,” Roberts writes. The modelling also “assumes rapid, large-scale, steady, rational progress toward energy transition. It assumes that mitigation efforts will play out like an economist’s spreadsheet.

“In the real world, however, special interests have power, built infrastructure carries enormous inertia, and policy is rarely rational. There are market failures, political distortions, and unforeseen events. Life is no spreadsheet.” Citing a recent critical review of 11 global decarbonization studies, Roberts argues that “we are past the time when thought experiments are enough. We need to start thinking in practical terms about how to get the technologies we need ready.”

In a January 29 post, Romm counters that “the most important climate issue is the cost and consequences of inaction. What the literature and field experience make crystal clear is that solving climate (stabilizing at 2°C) is cheap, by any plausible definition of the word. Indeed, it is ‘super-cheap,’” imposing the IPCC’s 0.06% per year growth penalty “to save billions and billions of people from needless suffering for decades if not centuries.”

Romm points to a 2014 technology report [3] from the International Energy Agency that put the energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy storage investment required to keep average global warming below 2ºC at about 1% of global GDP per year. “The $44 trillion additional investment needed to decarbonize the energy system in line with the (2ºC) by 2050 is more than offset by over $115 trillion in fuel savings,” the IEA reported, “resulting in net savings of $71 trillion.

None of that means that transition will be easy, Romm says, but that’s not the point. “Was it ‘easy’ for the Allies to win World War II?” he asks. “Most people would say ‘of course not,’ but also that it is an utterly irrelevant issue. We had no choice but to fight—and fight to win.”