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1 May 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 2:01pm

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.

By Alex Hern

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…

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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.

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