Over at Scientific American, I am participating in a Forum in which various participants make their recommendations to the policy makers meeting at the Paris climate change conference about what to do about climate change. In my contribution, "Fast Growth Can Solve Climate Change," I note that economic growth and wealth creation produce various virtuous trends, including lower total fertility rates, lessening pollution, shrinking farmland, expanding forests, greater urbanization, and the wherewithal to move toward low carbon energy in the form of nuclear power and innovative renewables. Below is an excerpt from my contribution to the Forum:
As representatives from 196 countries gather in Paris this December to negotiate a universal climate treaty, they should keep in mind that richer is more climate-friendly, especially for developing countries. Why? Because faster growth means higher incomes, which correlate with lower population growth. Greater wealth also means higher agricultural productivity, freeing up land for forests to grow as well as speedier progress toward developing and deploying cheaper non–fossil fuel energy technologies. These trends can act synergistically to ameliorate man-made climate change. …
Finally, faster economic growth provides the wherewithal to spur innovation and create cheaper and more efficient technologies. Swanson's Law is an example of increasing economies of scale: Every time global solar panel production capacity doubles, the price drops 20 percent. At the current rate of growth, electricity from solar panels will be cheaper than that produced by burning natural gas in less than a decade. Similarly, climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues have urgently argued that there is "no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power." A recent study published in PLoS ONE by Swedish and Australian researchers estimates that replacing all fossil fuel energy generation with nuclear power could be done in 25 to 34 years. Economic growth supplies the capital needed to fund the global no-carbon energy transformation, not mandates to deploy current, expensive, clunky versions of renewable energy and nuclear technologies.
Just as cell phones enabled poor countries to skip over landline telephone infrastructure, economic development coupled with increasingly cheap solar panels attached to inexpensive, high-efficiency energy-storage systems, including batteries, could help them bypass centralized fossil fuel plants and power grids. To truly address climate change, responsible policy makers should select courses of action that move humanity from slow- to high-growth trajectories, especially for the poorest developing countries. This includes honest bureaucracies, the rule of law, free markets, strong property rights and democratic governance. Whatever slows down economic growth will also slow down environmental cleanup and renewal.
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Note: I will be filing daily dispatches from the Paris climate change conference starting today.