The time for an honest and open dialogue on climate is right now



Net zero is the means to an end and we mustn’t confuse it with the overarching goal of enhancing the quality of human lives

While the challenge of climate change is incredibly complex, the climate conversation is often restricted to an overly simplistic scope, with a limited number of acceptable perspectives. The ‘acceptable’ worldview can be reduced to this: Climate change is an existential threat, our most important problem, and we can fix it cheaply with solar and wind energy.

This restricted discourse fails to capture the complexity of the climate challenge and hinders progress in addressing its multifaceted challenges. Climate change is a significant concern, but it is also important to consider the costs and feasibility of proposed solutions, weighing both the costs of climate change and costs of climate policy.

The truth is that there are many important problems. Climate is one of them. We must infuse the climate debate with honesty and transparency to make better decisions. It would be useful to avoid using fear as a motivator and instead inspire people through positive examples. Scare-mongering relies on an overstatement of the situation. The United Nations expects the average person to be 450% as rich in 2100 as today. Following current temperature projections, global warming would knock that down to people being 434% as rich. That is a problem, but it is not the end of the world.

Population dynamics, age distribution, income levels, technological advancements, relative prices, lifestyle changes, regulation and governance all play a more significant role in shaping the supply and demand of economic goods and services compared to the impact of climate change. Even the most significant UN scientific panel report of the last decade said, “For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers." This does not mean we should not care about climate change; it suggests a need to maintain perspective.

Countries must take ownership of the climate problem; they cannot be coerced into action. Many believe solar and wind power alone can solve our energy challenges. While renewable energy sources such as solar and wind can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, assessing their limitations and potential drawbacks is crucial. Their effectiveness varies depending on geographical factors and available resources. These sources often require substantial upfront investments, and their intermittent nature raises concerns about grid reliability and energy storage. Additionally, transitioning entirely to solar and wind power is not only an enormous engineering challenge that nobody has achieved yet, but it may also pose unprecedented challenges for industries heavily reliant on fossil fuels, potentially leading to job losses and economic and social disruptions. There is also unintended but significant environmental damage from the mining and processing of critical minerals and rare earths. Communities, their livelihoods and centuries of tradition and culture could be destroyed in the process. So, what are we achieving in the end?

The cost of implementing renewable energy infrastructure and the potential impact on energy prices should be carefully evaluated, especially for low-income households and industries sensitive to energy costs. Balancing climate goals with economic growth and energy affordability is crucial to avoid undue burdens on individuals and businesses.

Furthermore, it is important to approach climate change solutions focusing on innovation and technological advancements. Relying solely on government regulations and subsidies may limit the potential for market-driven solutions and private-sector innovations. Emphasizing research and development in clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy and advanced carbon capture and storage, can broaden the options available to address climate challenges. Power is required even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, and currently, our battery capacity is limited to a few minutes of storage. This constraint underscores the need for advancements in battery technology to ramp up energy storage dramatically. Additionally, exploring complementary energy sources and transitional options, such as hydroelectric or low-carbon traditional sources, may bridge the gap between intermittent supply and consistent demand.

We need to be more honest about the climate. This means recognizing the opportunity costs and trade-offs involved in climate choices and being cautious about relying solely on market mechanisms for emissions mitigation. We need to avoid resource nationalism and learn from the mistakes of past crises.

Climate change is undoubtedly a significant problem that demands urgent attention. However, it is not the only or ultimate problem we face. By acknowledging this reality, we can broaden our perspective and tackle other issues more effectively. This approach allows us to address not only environmental concerns, but also socioeconomic disparities, political instability, public health and other pressing challenges.

Ultimately, dealing with climate change and global warming is about limiting the damage to humans, the quality of our lives and livelihoods. If, in doing so, we significantly hurt these very things we aim to preserve, we will once again have demonstrated our proclivity for conflating means for ends.

‘Net zero’ is the means. Enhancing the lived experiences of humans is the goal. Let us make sure that the former does not undermine the latter.

These are the authors’ personal views.

V. Anantha Nageswaran & Bjorn Lomborg are, respectively, chief economic advisor to the Government of India; and president of the Copenhagen Consensus and author of ‘Best Things First’.

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