The dizzying economic growth in Asia threatens to disappoint expectations that new technologies will provide an easy fix for our climate problem, warn the authors of a commentary article in Nature this week.
Roger Pielke, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green believe that the Intergovernmental Panel on Change Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for its work, plays “a risky game” when assuming that “spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry out most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions.”
Most of the emissions scenarios that the IPCC considered for its last report include significant ‘built-in’ technological change. In other words, the IPCC assumes that a good deal of climate-friendly innovation will happen spontaneously, in the absence of climate policy measures.
Now, necessity, economic growth and pursuit of profit do generate all kinds of more or less useful new technologies, from atomic bombs to iPods. But assuming that pure market forces will readily come to our aid in matters of climate change might be too optimistic, the commentary authors warn. Worse, they say, the assumption of a lot of spontaneous technological change could be misinterpreted as a license for policymakers not to take aggressive action.
Pielke, Wigley and Green have stirred up a hornets’ nest with their analysis. Some initial reactions to their call to arms are collected in an accompanying news piece. Expert opinions range from “overdue” to “totally misleading”.
So who’s right and who’s wrong, then? Are we dramatically underestimating the challenge of climate change? Or is this just one more twist exercised to unnecessarily dramatize an admittedly serious problem? Or is it all just shadow-boxing in the arcane world of scenario-making?
Economics of climate change are a politicized field. Depending on one’s standpoint (on what market forces can or cannot do, for example), one may find different answers to these questions. Less disputable is the fact that some two billion people in China and India are on the point of adapting to western living standards. Their consumptive power and increasing mobility will add to the global climate and energy problem. Let’s hope that their creativity and engineering skills will also add to its solution.
Illustration: B. Mellor