Will an Economic Downturn Benefit the Climate?
"It's a cruel thing to say ... but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage"
- Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, in an interview with Reuters.
The economic news these days is about as grim as most climate science news.
As the stock market took a trip to Six Flags last week, a new federal assessment was released warning of an imminent transition to an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer months due to climate change, and another study found that even the most stringent reductions of greenhouse gas emissions would still lead to climate change on a scale that is considered by most experts to be downright dangerous. In Australia, a paper showed that climate change might imperil beloved kangaroo species by shifting precipitation patterns and vegetation.
You're not alone if you find yourself frantically looking for a silver lining in the midst of all the alarming information. One notable person tried to provide that bright spot last week, but unfortunately he wasn't very convincing.
Keep reading for more on whether the economic slump is good news for the climate. For D.C. area weather, see our full forecast through the weekend.
Paul Crutzen, who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in discovering the mechanisms causing the destruction of the ozone layer, made an attempt at finding a speck of good news in the economic/climate change milieu when he told the Reuters news service that a drop in economic activity could benefit the climate by curtailing human emissions of greenhouse gases.
When the economy is bad, Crutzen reasoned, people use less energy and hence emit fewer greenhouse gases.
Crutzen's point is sound in the sense that economic slumps can in fact result in temporary drops in the rate of emissions growth. According to a Pew Center on Global Climate Change analysis of U.S. EPA emissions data, the only years between 1990 and 2004 in which emissions decreased were the recession years of 1991 and 2001.
More recently, domestic emissions declined by 1.5 percent in 2006, which was not a recession year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (The U.S. EPA estimated a similar decrease of 1.1 percent as shown above). The EIA attributed the drop to lower overall energy demand related to warm weather conditions and high fuel prices, as well as an increased use of cleaner-burning natural gas, among other factors.
Thus, in some respects Crutzen's basic point is well-established. The problem with Crutzen's reasoning is that, as his plans for large-scale "geoengineering" solutions to climate change have indicated, climate change won't be brought under control with small cuts in the rate of emissions growth. What matters are reductions in the concentrations of greenhouse gases, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases actually in the atmosphere. If the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions were to simply stop growing, concentrations would still keep going up, thereby leading to continued warming.
Unless this recession proves to be an epic one, emissions won't drop by the amount that many scientists recommend -- up to 80 percent below current levels.
Although it's convenient, relying on the economic mess to take care of the climate problem would be foolhardy, especially considering recent information showing that the early stages of the economic downturn coincided with a dramatic growth in worldwide emissions, a finding that has surprised and alarmed some scientists.
Researchers found that between 2006 and 2007, global greenhouse gas emissions increased at the blistering pace of about three percent. China was the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, but even in the U.S. emissions rose by about two percent despite the sputtering economy.
Furthermore, It's quite possible that the economic mess will work against emissions reduction efforts by making governments and businesses more skittish about spending money to develop and deploy alternative energy technologies or enact tough new emissions standards.
So, all in all I say thanks but no thanks to Dr. Crutzen. I'll find my optimism on climate change somewhere else. Where that is, I'm not sure yet, but I'll let you know when I figure it out.
Do you think the economic situation will help or hurt efforts to tackle climate change?
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