Green Jobs to the Rescue

Book reviews

greening economy

Greening the Global Economy (2015)

What a relief to read a well-grounded book arguing that we can still do something about climate change! According to the author this is completely feasible from a technological and economic standpoint. It’s just the politics that gets in the way. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.)

Robert Pollin is a distinguished economist at the University of Massachusetts. His book, “Greening the Global Economy,” is published by MIT Press. So when he says that doing what it takes to stop climate change will not suppress economic growth but actually increase employment, I feel hope. That should be a political winner, right?

About 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to burning coal, oil, and natural gas for energy production. Pollin starts with the assessment that global emissions will need to fall 40% from present levels within 20 years, and 80% by mid-century.

He says this can be achieved without reducing living standards for most people in the developed nations (some rich people should give up living in their McMansions to help out) or foregoing improvement of living standards in the developing nations.

How? He first considers and rejects some prominent proposals:

  • Switching from high emissions coal to lower emissions natural gas will not reduce emissions enough to get us anywhere near the goal, plus fracking for natural gas causes other environmental damage such as contamination of water supplies and the leaking of methane into the atmosphere.
  • Capture and sequestration of the carbon emissions from burning coal is prohibitively expensive and environmentally risky.
  • Nuclear power produces deadly radioactive wastes and carries risks of meltdowns and proliferation of fuel for nuclear weapons.

Then he makes the case for two other options which I like best anyway:

  • Large-scale investments in energy efficiency—that is, getting the same results with less energy usage such as through better insulation, public transportation, and LED light bulbs—can reduce carbon emissions dramatically while creating “green jobs” at good wages.
  • Renewable energy sources—wind, geothermal, solar, small-scale hydro power, and clean bioenergy (not all bioenergy production results in a net reduction of problem emissions)—is now at the point where it can compete with the cost of fossil fuels, especially if government subsidies for the latter are taken into consideration.

Pollin claims that by investing at least 1.5% of the Global Domestic Product in energy efficiency and renewables over the next several decades (to thirds to the former and one third to the latter), the goal can be reached. It would also result in a net increase in employment, even after accounting for job losses in fossil fuel-related businesses.

So what’s the hitch?

One thing this would require is alternative institutional forms which have lower profit requirements than fossil fuel industries. These forms, however, are already in existence and can be expanded upon: public ownership, community-based ownership, public-private partnerships, coops.

The other thing, of course, is a significant role for governments in financing, investing in, and purchasing clean energies. And that’s where the wrinkle comes in. The fossil fuel industries have tremendous political power and are willing to wield it to block such an agenda and protect their investments.

Pollin concedes this, but also points out that these investments are only about 1.3% of total investments in the private economy, and their losses would not be in one fell swoop but spread out over many years. He sees promise in the movement to have institutions such as universities divest themselves of fossil fuel investments as a move in the right direction.

In sum, the main point of this slim and succinct book is simple:

“The profits of oil, coal, and natural gas companies will simply have to yield to the imperative of sustaining life on earth.”

A worthy battle cry if I ever heard one.

–Alan F. Zundel

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