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UK researchers: You can’t stop climate change & have our current economic system


Reason picked up on this new research last week. Researchers at Leeds University released a study with some bad news. We can either have high standards of living or stop climate change but not both.

Lead author Jefim Vogel, PhD researcher at Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute, explained: “Decent living standards are crucial for human well-being, and reducing global energy use is crucial for averting catastrophic climate changes. Truly sustainable development would mean providing decent living standards for everyone at much lower, sustainable levels of energy and resource use.

“But in the current economic system, no country in the world accomplishes that – not even close. It appears that our economic system is fundamentally misaligned with the aspirations of sustainable development: it is unfit for the challenges of the 21st century.”

Co-author Professor Julia Steinberger, from the University of Leeds and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, added: “The problem is that in our current economic system, all countries that achieve decent living standards use much more energy than what can be sustained if we are to avert dangerous climate breakdown.”

In other words, the countries where people want to live use too much energy per capita to avoid climate change. Even most of the countries the authors consider failures to meet decent living standards use too much energy as this graph demonstrates:

The press release never uses the word “capitalism” but that’s clearly the “current economic system” that the authors believe has to go. In its place would be a system that would deliver the same to every person. This would be accomplished by flattening out incomes through taxes and a maximum income.

“We also found that a fairer income distribution is crucial for achieving decent living standards at low energy use. To reduce existing income disparities, governments could raise minimum wages, provide a Universal Basic Income, and introduce a maximum income level. We also need much higher taxes on high incomes, and lower taxes on low incomes.”

But the wealthy won’t have to worry about having their income capped or taxed away for long because the researchers say economic growth will necessarily need to stop:

Lead-author Jefim Vogel concluded: “In short, we need to abandon economic growth in affluent countries, scale back resource extraction, and prioritise public services, basic infrastructures and fair income distributions everywhere.

Just shut down the world economy. And the result will be a new, much lower standard of living for everyone. Here’s Reason on what that would look like:

In order to save the planet from catastrophic climate change, Americans will have to cut their energy use by more than 90 percent and families of four should live in housing no larger than 640 square feet…they calculate that public transportation should account for most travel. Travel should, in any case, be limited to between 3,000 to 10,000 miles per person annually…

The good news is that everyone over age 10 is permitted a mobile phone and each household can have a laptop.

Of course all of this assumes that the amount of energy we produce doesn’t change. The authors rule out “speculative” future energy production. Not mentioned is the very non-speculative clean energy we could use right now: Nuclear power. CNET published a story yesterday about how odd it is that the people who say the climate situation is most dire are also eager to toss out the best possible solution.

What would the climate change debate look like if all humanity had was fossil fuels and renewables — and then today an engineering visionary revealed a new invention: nuclear energy. That’s the hypothetical posed to me by Dietmar Detering, a German entrepreneur living in New York.

“I’m sure we’d develop the hell out of it,” he said, before sighing. “We’re looking at a different world right now.”

Detering thinks nuclear energy could be the key to solving the climate crisis. A former member of Germany’s Green Party, Detering now spends his spare time as co-chair of the Nuclear New York advocacy group. He’s part of a wave of environmentalists campaigning for more nuclear energy.

In fact, what we actually see is nuclear plants shutting down meaning the share of non-fossil fuel produced energy is actually dropping in some places.

The International Energy Agency estimates the developed world is on track to lose 66% of its current nuclear capacity by 2040. In the US, where nuclear power produces nearly 40% of the country’s low-carbon power, 11 reactors have been decommissioned since 2013 — and nine more will soon join them.

The most recent retirement was Indian Point Energy Center, which formerly produced 25% of the electricity used by 10 million New Yorkers. One reactor was shut last year and the second followed on April 30. The result? Higher emissions as the electricity gap is filled by natural gas…natural gas’s share of energy consumption rose from 36% to 40% after Indian Point’s first reactor was shut last year.

Nuclear critics argue that this rise is temporary, and that expanding wind power will eventually replace Indian Point’s output. Nuclear New York’s Detering rejects this logic.

“People say, ‘Well, we’re replacing nuclear with wind and solar,’” said Detering. “But I think that is looking at this backwards. We want to displace fossil fuels.”

We have choices to make about our future economic system. There are already plenty of people willing to kill capitalism and drop the world to a much lower standard of living for everyone. But it’s not necessary. We have options already available that could preserve high standards of living without producing more CO2. Why does it often seem as if the most ardent environmentalists aren’t interested in those options?