Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hatfield Dodds et al. Nature Paper

Steve Hatfield-Dodds has published a paper today in Nature with many other CSIRO colleagues titled Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures. It is the result of a integrated assessment modeling analysis of Australia and the global economy under a variety of climate policy and other scenarios.

Steve comments on the paper:

"“Our key finding is that Australia can break the links between economic growth and environmental pressure, with key pressures falling or stable while the economy more than doubles in size out to 2050.  This can be achieved through mobilising proven technologies through extensions of established policy approaches.  Our analysis suggests other countries can also ‘decouple’ economic growth from environmental damage.

We do not find, however, that environmental pressures can be reduced for free.  In most cases, reducing environmental pressure results in economic growth being a little slower than it would be in the short term, but then stronger in the long term.  In some cases – like energy efficiency – reducing environmental pressure results in stronger economic growth almost immediately.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the results is that very large reductions in environmental pressures – including reversing the loss of native habitat in our agricultural landscapes, or achieving zero or lower net greenhouse gas emissions – have relatively modest impacts on income and living standards, whether the impacts are positive or negative.

The analysis represents a number of scientific advances, accounting for multiple aspects of resource use and environmental performance, and locating these in the context of economic activity and growth.  This allows us to explore the relationships between essential services humanity derives from nature, including energy, food, and clean water, and the environmental footprint of these services.

The analysis also explores the different kinds of choices involved in shifting towards a more sustainable future.  We find that while individual choices by businesses and households make an important contribution, policy choices are crucial.  We also find that changes in social values are
not required to make progress towards sustainability over coming decades.”

By contrast, a News and Views article in the same issue of Nature by Benjamin Bodirsky and Alexander Popp suggests that a better way forward would be " investing carbon-tax revenues in education and science, establishing markets for flexible electricity consumption, providing bicycle and public transport infrastructure and promoting healthy and sustainable diets." They argue that then less strict regulation would be needed to keep the economy within environmental boundaries. While I think this could help, I don't think it is likely to make a major contribution to the change needed by 2050.

I was asked to provide expert comment on the Hatfield-Dodds paper for a press release. I commented:

"“The paper by Hatfield-Dodds et al. is similar to many existing studies including those reviewed in IPCC reports using Integrated Assessment Models, which are simulation models of the economy and environmental impacts that result from economic development and climate policies. They claim that they include more environmental impacts and indicators than previous research.

They simulate various scenarios including existing trends where current climate policies continue both globally and in Australia and a no climate policy scenario, which they call "material intensive" and strong climate policies globally and in Australia.

In common with most existing mainstream studies they find that strong policies to abate greenhouse emissions do not prevent economic growth. This is in contrast to what they call "Communitarian Limits" approaches like Tim Jackson's book "Prosperity Without Growth" that claim that economic growth must stop in order for society to have a chance at dealing with climate change.

The surprising finding in the paper is that there are scenarios where the economy doesn't just continue to grow under a strong climate policy but that income per person is actually higher than under current trends - "Win-Win". This seems to be because Australia gains from changes in the global economy under the strong climate policies. For example, other countries pay to plant trees in Australia to capture carbon dioxide.”

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