How to Reduce Emissions and Grow the Economy

Paul Krugman has a good, hard-hitting piece in today’s NYTimes on practical solutions for climate change. It’s behind the firewall, but let me share a couple of excerpts. Here’s Paul:

Aside from a few dead-enders on the political right, climate change skeptics seem to be making a seamless transition from denial to fatalism. In the past, they rejected the science. Now, with the scientific evidence pretty much irrefutable, they insist that it doesn’t matter because any serious attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions is politically and economically impossible.

Behind this claim lies the assumption, explicit or implicit, that any substantial cut in energy use would require a drastic change in the way we live… To be fair, some people in the conservation movement seem to share that assumption.

But the assumption is false.

Let me tell you about a real-world counterexample: an advanced economy that has managed to combine rising living standards with a substantial decline in per capita energy consumption, and managed to keep total carbon dioxide emissions more or less flat for two decades, even as both its economy and its population grew rapidly. And it achieved all this without fundamentally changing a lifestyle centered on automobiles and single-family houses.

The name of the economy? California.

Paul, what happened? Aren’t you a New Yorker? You’re so positive. So optimistic


The energy divergence between California and the rest of the United States dates from the 1970s. Both the nation and the state initially engaged in significant energy conservation after that decade’s energy crisis. But conservation in most of America soon stalled: after a decade of rapid progress, improvements in auto mileage came to an end, while electricity consumption continued to rise rapidly, driven by the growing size of houses, the increasing use of air-conditioning and the proliferation of appliances.

In California, by contrast, the state continued to push policies designed to encourage conservation, especially of electricity. And these policies worked.

People in California have always used a bit less energy than other Americans because of the mild climate. But the difference has grown much larger since the 1970s. Today, the average Californian uses about a third less total energy than the average American, uses less than 60 percent as much electricity, and is responsible for emitting only about 55 percent as much carbon dioxide.

How did the state do it? In some cases conservation was mandated directly, through energy efficiency standards for appliances and rules governing new construction. Also, regulated power companies were given new incentives to promote conservation, via rule changes that “decoupled” their profits from the amount of electricity they sold.

And yes, a variety of state actions had the effect of raising energy prices. In the early 1970s, the price of electricity in California was close to the national average. Today, it’s about 50 percent higher.

And yet the state’s economy continues to flourish. Is this really possible? Not according to Rep. Ralph Hall, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Science and Technology, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi has designated to look at the science of global warming. After Pelosi spoke of searching for a bipartisan consensus to move forward, Hall gloomily declared (2/8/07):

"As a nation, we can’t figure out to write a cap-and-trade bill that does not cause an immediate spike in natural gas prices. A spike that endures for several years at the very least. A spke that causes the closing of more factories, the closing of steel mills, lumber mills, paper mills, lumber mills, and many others. Gas price increases over the last six years, even without carbon regulation, have already caused millions of permanent lay-offs.”

Ralph, are you saying that Texas can’t do what California already has?


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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