The Cost of Reducing CO2 Emissions

Dave Roberts at Grist has written an interesting piece about the esoteric topic of “carbon wedges” and his concern that the Wedge Daddy (Princeton’s Robert Socolow) believes that the cost of achieving significant carbon reduction is high.   Roberts appears to embrace the power of  “green positive thinking”.    To quote Dave, “Does Socolow understand that pessimism is profoundly demotivating? That no one will accept a problem of this size unless they feel a sense of efficacy and possibility, like there’s actually something meaningful they can do about it? What does he think is going to happen if the hippies adopt his dour take on things? Will that prompt more action? Will it mobilize more people?”

I agree with Socolow and Roberts here.   Economists are supposed to be hard headed and avoid wishful thinking and this appears to be Socolow’s world view.  But, Roberts and I both foresee two possible outcomes to this “game”.  In the ugly equilibrium, we stick to the status quo and emit a heck of lot of carbon and Joe Romm at the age of 120 will be able to tell Republicans that he was right and that they were wrong in a world with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 1000 ppm.  The other “pretty” equilibrium unfolds thanks to  today’s nascent “green push” as experimenting places such as California with AB32 and England try to sidestep the free rider problem and achieve the win-win of growth and declining emissions. Ideas are public goods and the new ideas we learn will diffuse widely.    There is a question here of how we take the first steps in “this journey”.  Who pays for them? How do we motivate the guinea pigs to fight on rather than giving up.  If “hippie positive thoughts” motivate this crew, then why not?   People like Jeff Sachs  talk about how do you avoid a “poverty trap”.    Well, how do you avoid the analogous “carbon trap”?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

4 thoughts on “The Cost of Reducing CO2 Emissions”

  1. I understand your passion for the high wire between the doomsters and the cornucopians. I think a good writer/thinker should be able to do both: boom and doom, as well as violin on the slack wire between them. After all, the future is a rapture wrapped up in apocalypse surrounded by a mystery.

    I’m feeling a bit boomster myself lately…

    Maybe because of this fascinating read in The New Scientist: A single source for clean water and fuel:

    Now, in work for a master’s thesis, Eric Lannan, a mechanical engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York and colleagues have identified three types of microalgae – Scenedesmus, Chlorella and Chlamydomonas – that efficiently convert nutrients to fuel on a diet of municipal waste water, while happily living in its harsh, salty environment. In a lab test, it took just three days for the algae to gobble up 99 per cent of the ammonia, 88 per cent of the nitrate and 99 per cent of the phosphates in a broth resembling that from a domestic sewage treatment plant, turning themselves into rich sources of fuel even as they purified the water.

    Or this one: Hot solar cells are the cool way to water and power:

    Pumping water through micro-channels on the surface of a solar panel not only makes it more efficient but can also make seawater drinkable.

    Which is all to re-say, what has been said so many times on TV that is has become cultural lore: The answer(s) is/are out there.
    Truly, the problem isn’t that humanity can’t succeed, the problem is what stands in the way of that success.

  2. Truly, the problem isn’t that humanity can’t succeed, the problem is what stands in the way of that success.

    Again, I quote Vonnegut:

    “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”

  3. That it can be done in a lab is awesome — but you might still end up with alga-oleum that distills into gasoline for about $1,000 a gallon.

  4. In 1980 I knew a guy who was in a team working on a promising photo-voltaic cell. Exxon bought up the patent and went through the motions of development long enough to be able to say ‘See it can’t work.’
    And of course Ronnie then pulled the plug on the incentives that could have made renewable energy a reality.
    As to anybody listening to “the hippies”, nobody has over the last fifty years and the longer we go along the more it turns out they were right about it all: war, food, energy (particularly nukes),… They were wrong about Rock’N’Roll saving the world or at least it hasn’t so far but it is still alive so maybe if we all can just keep thinking happy thoughts.

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