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.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.