We’re again seeing the return of magical thinking in the economics profession and elsewhere. Limiting climate change is indeed worth doing, but it is not close to a free lunch. Eduardo Porter makes the relevant point quite nicely:
“If the Chinese and the Indians found it much more economically efficient to build out solar, nuclear and wind, why are they still building all these coal plants?” asked Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank focused on development and the environment.
China’s CO2 emissions increased 4.2 percent last year, according to the Global Carbon Project, helping drive a global increase of 2.3 percent. China now accounts for 28 percent of the world’s total emissions, more than the United States and the European Union combined.
“I don’t think the Chinese and the Indians are stupid,” Mr. Nordhaus told me. “They are looking at their indigenous energy resources and energy demand and making fairly reasonable decisions.”
For them, combating climate change does not look at all like a free lunch.
Note that doing something about air pollution and doing something about carbon emissions are two distinct issues. America did a great deal to clean up its air, for instance when it comes to the dangerous Total Particulate Matter, but has done much less to lower its carbon emissions. It is no accident that the former is a national public good, the latter is mainly a global public good. China, India, and other developing nations may well go a similar route and simply keep emitting carbon at high and perhaps even growing rates. If you lump everything together into a general “the benefits of getting rid of air pollution,” you will be missing that nations can and probably will make targeted clean-up attempts that leave carbon emissions largely intact.
By the way, here is yesterday’s report from India:
“India’s first task is eradication of poverty,” Mr. Javadekar said, speaking in a New York hotel suite a day after a United Nations climate summit. “Twenty percent of our population doesn’t have access to electricity, and that’s our top priority. We will grow faster, and our emissions will rise.”
India is the world’s third-largest carbon polluter, behind China and the United States, and Mr. Javadekar’s comments are a first indication of the direction of the environmental policies of the new prime minister, Narendra Modi…
In coming decades, as India works to provide access to electricity to more than 300 million people, its emissions are projected to double, surpassing those of the United States and China.
If you haven’t tried crossing the street in India, you don’t know much about how hard it is to fix the problem of carbon emissions.