There are many debates about the best ways to address global warming, with most centering on whether a carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme is best (or some combination of the two). There are also some lively, though less extensive, debates about the extent to which we should balance our attempts to reduce global warming with attempts to mitigate its effects.
I propose shifting the focus and asking what to me is the key question: which policies would best promote technological innovation? This is crucial because simple demographics and economic trends make it impossible to significantly curtail greenhouse gas emissions without major technological advances.
By the end of the century the Earth’s population will likely be in the range of 9 billion, a roughly 50% increase. Even though most will be born in what are now developing countries, by century’s end these billions of people will have benefited from significant economic growth (as will those who already live in the developed world) and perhaps their now-emerging nations will have joined the ranks of modern economies.
These two facts alone mean that if we all we did was rely on today’s technology, the Earth’s population in 2100 would emit many more times the greenhouse gases than we do currently. And yet if we’re to tackle global warming we need reductions of 50-80% from current levels. Do the math and you’ll see that there are only two options: massive increases in technology or massive reductions in material living standards. This essential conclusion is inescapable (with one major exception--see below).
Technological innovations can come in many forms, including more fuel-efficient cars, greener buildings and new renewable energy sources. It makes sense to investigate whether the types of policies currently on the table are really the best at helping to promote innovations in these areas. We also need to think more creatively. For example, should prizes for discoveries play a bigger role? How can we best support the development of technologies that don’t even yet exist (but which history tell us will surely be a part of the mix)?
And we need to determine which policies can have the most direct impact on shifting consumption patterns. Along those lines, many experts have suggested that a reduction in per capita consumption of animal products might be extremely helpful.
Here’s why. When the price of carbon (and other scarce resources) is factored into the price of animal products, these staples of modern life will become much more expensive; as a result people’s ability to purchase them will likely decline sharply. Whereas most people would feel poorer if they couldn’t vacation as much or own as many playthings, they might come to realize that eating fewer animal products was in fact a blessing in disguise: it would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve people’s health as well.
I know that some might look at this as a reduction in living standards. To me it’s a win-win we could all look forward to.