There are ongoing debates about the best way to address global warming, with most centering on whether a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme is best (or some combination of the two). There are also some lively, though less extensive, debates about the extent to which we should balance our attempts to reduce global warming with mitigating its effects.
I would like to shift the focus a little and ask the question: which policies will best promote technological innovation? Simple demographics and economic trends make it impossible to significantly curtail greenhouse gas emissions without major technological advances.
By the end of the century the earth’s population will likely be in the range of 9 billion, a roughly 50 percent increase. Even though most of those people will be born in what are now developing countries, by the time the century comes to an end they will have enjoyed significant economic growth (as will have those in the developed world) and perhaps moved into the ranks of the wealthy.These two facts alone mean that if we relied on the technology of today, humanity in 2100 would by default emit many more times the greenhouse gases we currently do.
And yet, if we’re to tackle global warming, we need reductions of 50-80 percent from current levels. Do the math and there are only two options: massive increases in technology, or massive reductions in material living standards. This essential conclusion is inescapable (with one major exception — see below).
Technological innovations can come in many forms and include more fuel-efficient cars, greener buildings, and new renewable energy sources. It makes sense to investigate whether the types of policies currently on the table are the best at helping to promote innovations in these areas. We also need to think more creatively. For example, should prizes for discoveries play a bigger role? How can we best support the development of technologies that don’t even exist yet (but as history shows, will surely be a part of the mix)?
We also need to investigate which policies will have the most direct impact on shifting consumption patterns. This last point brings me to one area where a reduction in per capita consumption would likely be a good thing for people’s wellbeing: animal consumption. When the price of carbon (and other scarce resources) is eventually factored into the price of animal products, these staples of modern life will become much more expensive and people’s ability (and desire) to purchase them will decline sharply.
Whereas most people would justifiably feel poorer if they couldn’t vacation as much or own as much furniture, they might find that eating less animal products is a blessing in disguise; not only would this reduction dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it would improve their health as well.