2021年4月27日 星期二

Why you won’t have to suffer to save the planet

You can keep eating meat (though vegan cheese has gotten quite good).
David Tanis makes green chile buffalo cheeseburgers for his City Kitchen column.Karsten Moran for The New York Times
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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Today's column was about reasons right-wing politicians believe they can lie to their supporters about what the Biden administration is up to, especially although not only with regards to climate policy. As I said, the Republican line is that Democrats are going to take away all the good things in life, when the reality is that the Biden team is very much not calling for any serious crimping of Americans' lifestyle.

But why does the current administration imagine that we can save the planet without making major sacrifices? A lot of the answer has to do with extraordinary innovations in energy technology that have taken place over the past dozen years, innovations that make achieving a low-emission economy look like a medium-difficulty technical problem rather than something that will require drastic changes in the way we live. The cost of electricity from wind power has fallen 70 percent since 2009; the cost of electricity from solar panels has fallen 89 percent.

Thinking about these developments, I remembered something I wrote back in 2010, when Democrats were trying unsuccessfully to push through legislation creating a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions. The economic costs of such a system that model-builders estimated at the time were significant, although far from economy-killing. But I suggested that it was a good bet that the models overstated the economic costs of climate action, largely because they didn't allow for creativity. Indeed, what we got was innovation that transformed the whole proposition.

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Now, you can't always count on that kind of innovation coming along. A bit of autobiography here: I spent the summer of 1973, between my junior and senior years in college, working as a research assistant to William Nordhaus, who devised a brilliantly innovative way of modeling energy futures. (He later won the Nobel largely for his work integrating economic and climate models.) I passed most of that time in Yale's Geology Library, rounding up the best available estimates of how much alternatives to fossil fuels, oil in particular, would cost; these estimates were crucial inputs into Bill's model.

Unfortunately, over the next several decades we would learn that the engineers responsible for these estimates were wildly overoptimistic: Oil prices rose well above the levels at which alternatives like shale oil were supposed to have been competitive, but the substitutes kept not appearing. Another of my teachers, Martin Weitzman — who should also have won a Nobel! — quipped that the cost of alternatives to crude oil was always 20 percent above the current price of crude, whatever that price happened to be. We used to call it Weitzman's Law.

Weitzman's Law didn't finally snap until after around 2009, when first fracking, then renewable energy, saw plunging costs and surging production.

So we couldn't have counted on renewable energy getting so cheap so fast. But it did. Claims by conservatives that policies to reduce emissions would kill the economy never made much sense, but anyone making those claims now is living in a time warp, ignoring the way the energy landscape has changed.

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The truth is that given current technology we can resolve the climate crisis without major changes in the way we live. No, we won't have to give up meat. Although now that you mention it, meat alternatives have gotten immensely better over the past few years, and if you believe The Times's food desk — which you should, it may be the best part of the paper! — vegan cheese is getting seriously good. Innovation isn't just about energy production.

In other words, we can eat, drink and be merry while still saving the planet. Enjoy your grilled brussels sprouts.

Quick Hits

Nobody expected the renewable energy revolution.

Memories of technology forecasts past. Kahn was wildly overoptimistic.

When Bush and Cheney doubled down on fossil fuels.

Here comes cultured meat.

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Facing the Meat

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