Thursday, April 7, 2016

Should We Stop Investing in Carbon-Free Energy So That We Will Be Able to Afford CCS?

Myles Allen has a new interesting paper in Nature Climate Change:"Drivers of Peak Warming in a Consumption-Maximizing World", which has attracted media attention. The article in The Australian is framed as: "If we spend money now on renewable energy we won't be able to afford carbon sequestration later". This didn't sound right to me as I'm an "all of the above" kind of guy when it comes to climate policy and if there is less carbon in the air that needs scrubbing in the future the less it would seem to cost to scrub it.

I haven't done a thorough read of the mathematics in Allen's paper and this isn't going to a proper critique of his article. I just wanted to understand where the journalist got this idea from.

Allen uses a very simple cost-benefit framework where there is "backstop technology" - a technology that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at constant cost. The key assumption I think is that the "social cost of carbon" depends linearly on the level of income per capita. The following graph illustrates the main result:
If economic growth is rapid, then the social cost of carbon will rise much faster than if economic growth is slow. Therefore, it will pay off earlier to employ the backstop technology. This means that, paradoxically, peak warming will be less than under slower economic growth.

It is a long leap from this to arguing that we shouldn't be investing in renewable energy. Allen's model allows for an efficient level of abatement until the marginal cost of abatement hits the backstop cost. Also the model has no feedback from abatement cost to the rate of economic growth, which is exogenous. Almost all economic research, including my own, finds that the growth costs of climate mitigation are very small, at least until extreme levels of abatement are reached. So, the model is an interesting thought exercise about CCS but doesn't have as strong policy implications as the media suggests.

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