Another look at the slump’s silver linings

Few lobbyists or negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference advocated one solution to the urgent task of slashing greenhouse gas emissions – a deeper, longer, uglier recession.

Counterintuitive this might be, but it’s a case of different means to the same end: the strategies for tackling climate change need to drive similar impacts to those experienced during this global recession.

Economic growth has long been seen as the root of greenhouse gas emissions. And as other commentators including Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times and Alex Morales and Catherine Airlie writing for Bloomberg showed some time ago, the economic slowdown has in fact sent emissions levels plummeting, in the biggest fall for four decades. The evidence seems clear. Let’s look at some of the findings.

The International Energy Agency, in its World Energy Outlook 2009, found that global emissions have fallen by 25 per cent. They say it’s down to a mixture of shelving and delay of coal-fired power station plans, better US car efficiency standards and China’s energy efficiency initiatives.

A recent report of a 1.5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for 2008 across all 27 members of the European Union attributes this to the slowdown in industrial activity.

Researchers at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy said that if the downturn deteriorates into a depression as bad as that of the 1930s, emissions will be 23 per cent lower than they would have been if the recession hadn’t occurred.

Meanwhile, the crunch seems to be keeping drivers off the roads — showing that frugality has positive implications for the environment. A study in the UK by the Automobile Association and Trafficmaster, a road movement monitoring company, reported a 31 per cent decline in motorway traffic since 2007.

The fall in UK traffic has been attributed to less commuting as unemployment rises, coupled with more people working at home, sharing lifts, using public transport and cycling. Of course, whether these are lasting changes in behaviour or knee-jerk reactions to shifting situations remain unclear.

The United Nations Environment Programme also argued that 2008 was the first year when new investments in renewable energies were greater than investments in fossil-fuelled technologies.

So what does all this point to? Shrinking emissions levels are obviously a big tradeoff, but not so big that they hide the costs of this recession. The East-West Institute shows the negative social and economic impacts across sectors and regions are considerable, reminding us that mitigation is only one part of sustainable development.

No one expects President Obama, Ed Miliband or indeed celebrity eco-warrior Leonardo DiCaprio to advocate driving the global economy further through the floor, but the trends we’re observing give us a glimpse of the potential global pain hiding behind pronouncements of the transformation required for a low-carbon economy to become reality.

We can take lessons from the costs of this recession for the task of managing sustainable development priorities – particularly global equity. Recession and climate change are likely to have similar impacts.

The Stern Review demanded investment now to stave off future costs. The recession is giving our politicians a taste for the full range of economic, social, and environmental costs we can expect with climate change; but will these be costs they are willing to stomach?

 

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