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The Uncomfortable Truth Behind Flat Carbon Emissions

Last week we learned that maybe, just maybe, global carbon emissions were flat in 2014 even though the global economy supposedly grew by 3 percent. As Brad Plumer of Vox (whose work I greatly respect) points out, carbon emissions have moved up almost in lockstep with economic growth for the entire industrial age except during recessions and one year of growth 40 years ago.

This is why I use "supposedly" when referring to the global economic growth number. It's because there is another obvious and plausible explanation for the flat carbon emissions, namely, that the global economy did not grow by the stated percentage, that it may have grown only a fraction of that amount or not at all. Related: Rare Earths Problem Could Have A Nuclear Solution

Economic measures are constantly being revised, and I think it is very likely that the global economic growth number for 2014 will be revised downward. Probably not to zero, but downward nonetheless. It's also possible that estimates of carbon emissions are too low. Plumer cites "notoriously unreliable" Chinese emission numbers as one reason to be skeptical.

But, even if 2014 turns out to be a year of growth without rising emissions, we shouldn't get particularly excited. Nor should we be particularly excited if it continues for a time. This is because the only trend that will actually address climate change is a RAPID DECLINE in worldwide emissions (as Plumer rightly points out).

Plumer makes one very telling statement in this regard:

If we ever hope to stop global warming, we'll have to sever that relationship [of economic growth to emissions] — and figure out how to have economic growth while reducing emissions. (Alternatively, we could halt economic growth, but no one wants that.)

"Alternatively, we could halt economic growth, but no one wants that." Two questions arise from this observation: Is it true that "no one wants that"? Who specifically wants economic growth to continue and why? Related: Oil Prices To Fall Or Fly Depending On Iranian Nuclear Talks

The answer to the first question is no; there is, in fact, a small minority of people advocating an end to growth. Herman Daly, former World Bank senior economist, is the acknowledged dean of the steady-state economy movement. In a September 2005 Scientific American piece, "Economics in A Full World," he outlined his case for why there is little room for economic growth and why growth in recent decades has been uneconomic, that is, the cost of such growth has outweighed the benefits.

There are also the deep ecologists who value other species on the planet as much as our own, a view which implies not only an end to economic growth but a serious rollback of industrial civilization. Perhaps Derrick Jensen is the best known of the deep ecologists whose views about how to achieve the proper role for humans on planet Earth varies greatly.

Given that there are people who want to halt or even reverse economic growth, we must now ask the second question: Who wants growth and why?

If we follow Herman Daly's logic, we have long since passed the point of economic growth and now have "uneconomic growth," growth that imposes costs greater than the growth is worth: social costs in terms of inequality and environmental costs that undermine the long-term sustainability of human society.

So, who benefits from such growth? We now have a name for this group, the one percent. Those with the highest incomes and greatest financial wealth continue to benefit from such growth since they can both reap disproportionate rewards from it and insulate themselves from the costs associated with it--leaving others to bear them.

When Plumer says that no one wants economic growth to end, what he is unwittingly saying is that the power elite in the world does not want to face the grand implication of a steady-state economy--namely, that lower-income groups cannot be assured of a better material existence through economic growth and so such betterment would, of necessity, have to come from the redistribution of wealth.

As long as the chimera of perpetual growth can be sold to the masses, no one will have to deal with the thorny issue of redistribution as the primary method for the economic betterment of the middle and lower classes. Related: U.S. Oil Glut Story Grossly Exaggerated

And yet, growth ended for many people around the globe in 2008. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), if you earn the median wage in Kenya, your real income has declined 26 percent from 2008 through 2013. For Greece, the decline has been 24 percent. For prosperous Singapore and Japan the number is minus 1 percent. Egyptian real median income declined 10 percent; the United Kingdom declined 7 percent; Iceland and Italy, 6 percent; Taiwan, 5 percent; Spain and the Netherlands, 3 percent; Ireland, 2 percent; Austria, Luxembourg and the Philippines, all hovered around zero percent growth.

Of course, some prospered. Median wages in Romania, Panama, Paraguay, Norway, Jordan, Poland, Vietnam and Morocco all rose more than 10 percent from 2008 onward. There were standouts: The Brazilian median wage grew by 21 percent; Thailand by 26 percent; China by 74 percent; Mongolia by 75 percent. Ukrainian workers enjoyed a media wage increase of 43 percent through 2013 though it is likely that much of that has since been wiped out by the war and currency crisis there. In the United States, the median wage registered a one percent increase according to the ILO, though homegrown analysis suggests a decline.

The metaphorical tide of economic growth that is supposed to lift all boats is lifting far fewer people and much more selectively than before. On the other hand, if you possess substantial financial assets, you have prospered quite nicely as financial markets post daily records in the face of ever more precarious economic growth numbers around the world. But, only a small portion of the world's people have any financial assets at all. The fate of a large number of the others has been stagnant or falling incomes or unemployment in an increasingly uncertain world.

Whether economic growth for all the world's people will return is an open question. The system by which we've governed the world economy, a system dependent on central banking, central government spending, the build-up of huge and unsustainable debt, and the ever more rapid depletion of fossil fuels and other resources is showing its decrepitude.

Six years of pedal-to-the-metal monetary policy and government deficit spending have barely nudged world growth forward while levitating financial markets to unsustainable levels (and thereby exacerbating inequality). Such policies in the past would have had the world economy quickly overheating with central bankers responding by hoisting interest rates sky high to rein in inflation and financial excesses.

Instead, the economy remains so weak that the U.S. Federal Reserve had to reassure the world that despite language in its recent public statement that would indicate an imminent increase in interest rates for the first time in 10 years (that's not a typo), the central bank really wouldn't be raising them anytime soon after all.

So, maybe flat carbon emissions are actually telling us something "no one" wants to hear: that economic growth has faltered or even halted for a large portion of the world's people and that we are going to have to deal with the consequences of that until we design a new system that can either grow for the benefit of everyone--a difficult proposition--or that can sustainably, equitably and successfully manage a steady-state economy--an even more difficult proposition.

By Kurt Cobb

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  • Lee James on April 01 2015 said:
    Thought-provoking article. From it, I get:

    1. Growth is hard to measure
    2. We may be over-estimating growth today
    3. Note: "uneconomic" growth -- the net benefit of growth can decline
    4. Who actually benefits from GDP-type growth? Are all boats lifted?
    5. Government monetary policy and spending is desperately trying to keep raw growth going
    6. We can try to do more of the same, or make a challenging move to a preferred steady-state economy

    I vote for being less agnostic about what we produce and consume. Steady-state economy is very possible.

    There's intelligent growth and intelligent products of our industry, and there's dumb growth and basically dumb consumer products. If we choose intelligent production and consumption, we stand a decent chance of pulling off a steady-state economy.

    Right now, we do not differentiate between "intelligent" use of resources for products, and "dumb" ones. Gross product is agnostic on societal value; it's all a kind of "wild west" marketplace value, measured in "dollars."

    Maybe someday we will be more intelligent in production/consumption. As a result, the consequences of sucking up and burning Earth's resources could moderate.

    If I drive a combustion vehicle to the neighborhood store to pick up milk when I can walk or bike, that's dumb. If I stop at the store on the way to some place that requires that I drive, that's more in the realm of "intelligent."

    More intelligent production/consumption could make possible a much more livable world, at no net growth. To get there, our marketplace would have to correctly price according to the actual life-cycle cost of products. That is why, for example, we need to put a price on carbon.

    A price on carbon could just serve as an initial indicator of the full-cost of burning fuel; after the up-front reminder of the cost, the tax (more like a fee) could be returned to households annually, making the tax revenue-neutral.

    It's key that we fully recognize uneconomic aspects of consumption to have intelligence in our marketplace.
  • David L. Hagen on April 15 2015 said:
    Reality Check: Cobb claims "carbon emissions have moved up almost in lockstep with economic growth".
    That is directly contradicted by Dr. Murry Salby's evidence that since 2002, anthropogenic CO2 has been rising 300% of the rate before, while the trend in rising total CO2 has not significantly changed.
    Salby provides major evidence that human caused warming is likely LESS THAN 30% of total global warming.
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/04/13/new-video-dr-murry-salby-control-of-atmospheric-co2/
  • Allan Barr on September 15 2015 said:
    Has anyone considered that due to lower oxygen levels in many cities CO is been formed instead of CO2? 15% oxygen levels anything burnt turns into CO.

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