Maybe we should start hoping for a recession to fix climate change

America's on a hiding to nothing, and it's not much better here.

I've never been a big fan of horror movies. Too many rely on artificial tension built around soundtracks and surprises, and, while I'm not going to pretend that artificial tension built around soundtracks and surprises can't scare the bejeezus out of me, I prefer my terror more existential. More insidious. And above all, delivered in chart form:

Chart showing the huge discrepancy between predicted US CO2 emissions and America's obligations under the Copenhagen treaty

That's a chart from the Washington Post's Brad Plumer, who writes:

It would be fairly straightforward for the United States to keep its carbon dioxide emissions from rising between now and 2040. All Congress would have to do is keep most current energy policies in place…

[But] the United States would get nowhere near its climate-change goals if emissions simply flat-lined…

The Obama administration, after all, has set a goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. That’s in line with what the IPCC has recommended the U.S. do to do its part for limiting global warming below 2°C.

It's a pretty devastating one-two punch: even with the best policies that America has implemented to date, emissions are projected to flatline; and they need to fall by 17 per cent just to hit the "easy" 2020 target, let alone the 2050 target.

There's another thing, as well: this is one of the only charts in which things get better in a recession. When demand plummets and factories reduce production, emissions fall correspondingly. That's the problem facing the European Emissions Trading Scheme at the moment, which planned future releases of emissions permits based on an assumption that, uncapped, emissions would grow indefinitely. Along came the recession, and that assumption was blown out of the water – with devastating results.

The real issue about fighting climate change isn't how to reduce emissions, in other words. We know how to do that: a recession as crippling at that in 2008/9, lasting for a couple of years, would bring them right down. Depending on which estimates you use for the damage inflicted by climate change, it might still be less painful than actually experiencing a 2˚C rise in global temperature.

The challenge is how to do it without inflicting that pain. A planned decarbonisation of the energy sector – switching investment from high- to low- and zero-carbon forms of generation – might be expensive, but the stimulative effects of such a building program could end up being a net positive even without the environmental benefits. And when it comes to borrowing for investment, there's little more future-proof than trying to ensure we don't all die.

It's less a horror film, and more like 127 Hours. We're James Franco, and the hopefully we get the courage to chop off our own arm before we have to start drinking our urine to survive.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.