Clean Energy Is Needed Now (Climate Scientists & Climate Economists Agree)

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Climate action is trillions of dollars cheaper than climate inaction.

Investing in a clean energy economy is not cheap. It is actually projected to cost trillions of dollars. However, sticking with a dirty energy economy will cost society much more, many trillions of dollars more.

For responses to other anti-cleantech myths, see: Anti-Cleantech Myths Debunked (Your #1 Resource).

I recently posted David Roberts’ piece on a new climate and energy study by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira. I’ve run across more good quotes and a good graphic on the matter since then, and I just wrote about these over on Planetsave. Additionally, I wrote a related story over there on the difference in cost between taking strong climate action now versus continued climate inaction. Skipping most of what was already posted on here (see the link above for that), here’s a bit more on the Myhrvold–Caldeira study, “Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity,” followed by a repost on some climate-action–climate-inaction studies:

Which Technologies to Use (to Stop Considerable, Considerable Global Warming)

From Caldeira and Myhrvold:

Despite the lengthy time lags involved, delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond. This underscores the urgency in developing realistic plans for the rapid deployment of the lowest-GHG-emission electricity generation technologies. Technologies that offer only modest reductions in emissions, such as natural gas and — if the highest estimates from the life-cycle analyses are correct — carbon capture and storage, cannot yield substantial temperature reductions this century. Achieving substantial reductions in temperatures relative to the coal-based system will take the better part of a century, and will depend on rapid and massive deployment of some mix of conservation, wind, solar, and nuclear, and possibly carbon capture and storage.

Reiterated by the Institute of Physics news release:

… technologies that offer only modest reductions in greenhouse gases, such as the use of natural gas and perhaps carbon capture and storage, cannot substantially reduce climate risk in the next 100 years.

Delaying the rollout of the technologies is not an option however; the risks of environmental harm will be much greater in the second half of the century and beyond if we continue to rely on coal-based technologies.


Dr Joe Romm of Climate Progress has more on the significance of this study (one of the most interesting things to note is who one of the authors is, and what his previous stance on the matter was):

These results are not entirely news to people who follow the recent climate and energy literature, which I’ve written about at length — see “NCAR Study: Switching From Coal to Gas Increases Warming for Decades, Has Minimal Benefit Even in 2100.” The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was first shown by the International Energy Agency in its big June report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.

But what’s new is the first peer-reviewed analysis that “has predicted the climate effects of energy system transitions” with “a quantitative model … that includes life-cycle emissions and the central physics of greenhouse warming.”

What’s also remarkable about this study is the lead author, Nathan Myhrvold. You may recall Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft, from his anti-clean-energy and pro-geoengineering quotes in”Error-riddled book Superfreakonomics,” which I and many, many others debunked at length in 2009.

Myhrvold was quoted back then about the “carbon debt” of the clean energy build-out: “Eventually, we have a great carbon-free energy infrastructure but only after making emissions and global warming worse every year until we’re done building out the solar plants, which could take 30 to 50 years.”

Of course, not noted in all of this is energy efficiency and the economy’s role in the matter. The study assumes constantly rising energy demand. We’ll see about that. Also, we’d be wise to invest a LOT more money in energy efficiency — it’s also critical to a clean energy transition.

Costs of Climate Action vs Costs of Climate Inaction

The rest of this post is a repost of a great piece by Skeptical Science on this matter, which is partially a debunking of a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal that misrepresents a prominent Yale economist, William Nordhaus:

Yale’s William Nordhaus is one of the foremost experts on climate economics. His research has frequently been misrepresented by climate “skeptics” to argue that CO2 limits will harm the economy. For example, Christopher Monckton cited a climate economics review by Richard Tol (which in turn heavily cited work by Nordhaus) in claiming:

“…the overwhelming majority of economic studies on the subject (which are summarized in my paper) find the cost of climate action greatly exceeds the cost of inaction…”

As we demonstrated in our response, Monckton completely misrepresented the work of Tol (and Nordhaus, by extension), and thus his claim is 100% wrong. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of economic studies on climate find the cost of climate inaction greatly exceeds the cost of action (Figure 1). That’s why there is a consensus amongst economists with climate expertise that we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 2).

Figure 1:  Approximate costs of climate action (green) and inaction (red) in 2100 and 2200. Sources: German Institute for Economic Research and Watkiss et al. 2005

Figure 2: New York University survey results of economists with climate expertise when asked under what circumstances the USA should reduce its emissions

Similarly, a recent letter published by the Wall Street Journalsigned by 16 climate “skeptics” (few of which have any climate or economics expertise, and many of which have received fossil fuel funding) misrepresented Nordhaus’ research as supporting climate inaction from an economic standpoint. When Nordhaus objected to this misrepresentation of his work, Patrick Michaels doubled-down on the misrepresentation, claiming Nordhaus didn’t understand his own research.

However, as discussed by Alex C on Skeptical Science, the “skeptics” had indeed misrepresented Nordhaus’ work. They focused on the cost-to-benefit ratio of various climate mitigation options, whereas it is the difference (benefit minus cost, as opposed to benefit divided by cost) which tells us how much money is saved, and thus is the most important factor in determining which option is most economically beneficial.

In a recent article, Nordhaus sought to set the record straight that the climate economics literature clearly indicates that CO2 limits will save money. Nordhaus confirmed that the SkS approach is the correct one:

“The authors cite the “benefit-to-cost ratio” to support their argument. Elementary cost-benefit and business economics teach that this is an incorrect criterion for selecting investments or policies. The appropriate criterion for decisions in this context is net benefits (that is, the difference between, and not the ratio of, benefits and costs).

This point can be seen in a simple example, which would apply in the case of investments to slow climate change. Suppose we were thinking about two policies. Policy A has a small investment in abatement of CO2 emissions. It costs relatively little (say $1 billion) but has substantial benefits (say $10 billion), for a net benefit of $9 billion. Now compare this with a very effective and larger investment, Policy B. This second investment costs more (say $10 billion) but has substantial benefits (say $50 billion), for a net benefit of $40 billion. B is preferable because it has higher net benefits ($40 billion for B as compared with $9 for A), but A has a higher benefit-cost ratio (a ratio of 10 for A as compared with 5 for B). This example shows why we should, in designing the most effective policies, look at benefits minus costs, not benefits divided by costs.”

Nordhaus went on to further dispel the myth that CO2 limits will hurt the economy.  In fact, the opposite is true:

“My research shows that there are indeed substantial net benefits from acting now rather than waiting fifty years. A look at Table 5-1 in my study A Question of Balance (2008) shows that the cost of waiting fifty years to begin reducingCO2 emissions is $2.3 trillion in 2005 prices. If we bring that number to today’s economy and prices, the loss from waiting is $4.1 trillion. Wars have been started over smaller sums.

My study is just one of many economic studies showing that economic efficiency would point to the need to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions right now, and not to wait for a half-century. Waiting is not only economically costly, but will also make the transition much more costly when it eventually takes place. Current economic studies also suggest that the most efficient policy is to raise the cost of CO2 emissions substantially, either through cap-and-trade or carbon taxes, to provide appropriate incentives for businesses and households to move to low-carbon activities.”


“The claim that cap-and-trade legislation or carbon taxes would be ruinous or disastrous to our societies does not stand up to serious economic analysis. We need to approach the issues with a cool head and a warm heart. And with respect for sound logic and good science.”

Despite the economic reality that CO2 limits will save money, the myth that they will harm the economy is a pervasive one. However, this myth is based on nothing more than a misunderstanding of climate science and economics, and misrepresentation of the climate science and economics body of research.

Note: this information has been incorporated into the rebuttal to the myth “CO2 limits will harm the economy”

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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