Big emissions gains require big investments; get over it
I’m not particularly invested in white roofs — the subject of several stories yesterday, reporting research showing that painting roofs white in several major urban areas would have a surprisingly large effect on warming — but Keith Johnson’s response on Environmental Capital makes me grind my teeth:
The scale and cost of any program that would re-top all the roofs and paved surfaces in cities the size of Los Angeles, Mexico City, New Delhi, and Tokyo simultaneously makes Al Gore’s plan to power America with 100% renewable energy in ten years seem cheap and doable by comparison.
This is what I call the Cost Tic. Do something big on climate or energy? But it costs a lot!
Our intuitive sense of cost is that it’s basically optional. Is that bag of Doritos worth the cost? No? Well then I won’t buy it.
The general public thinks lowering emissions is like a bag of Doritos. Do we want it? Well, golly, it’s is noble and everything, but it’s kind of expensive, and we’d rather keep the money in our pockets if that’s all right with you.
But that’s a distorted picture of the decisions before us. We’re spending money all the time — on transportation, goods, infrastructure — all the stuff we’re talking about changing based on climate concerns. As Brad Plumer points out, we’re constantly renovating and building new buildings. Renovating and constructing all the buildings we’ll need between now and 2035 is wildly expensive, if all you do is look at the dollar figure we’ll spend. Which is just to say that it’s a number with lots of digits. But of course it couldn’t be any other way. We need buildings, and we’ll get value back — in comfort, in health, in economic opportunity. It’s an investment which pays rich returns.
So too with white roofs. Yes, the money we’d spend would look big if considered as a lump sum. But every one of those buildings will save energy on cooling — depending on climate and location, up to 30 percent — and we will cumulatively save on the avoided destruction of unrestricted climate change. Those savings will accrue year after year, eventually exceeding the initial investment and becoming, over time, pure profit.
That’s the nature of investments in efficiency. If you look at one end, it looks like big cost. If you take a longer view, it looks like a no-brainer. We’ve got to train ourselves to start thinking longer term again.
That’s true for white roofs, for smarter electrical grids, for renewable tax credits, for public transit, for R&D — and yes, for Al Gore’s plan. Take the five or 10-year view it and it looks expensive. Take the 10 or 20-year view and it looks like a bargain. The value we’ll get in return — directly, in lower energy costs, but also in avoided warming, national security benefits, public health benefits — will exceed the "cost" by orders of magnitude, given a payback period longer than the next business quarter.
There’s nothing Very Serious about focusing reflexively on costs. It’s just short-sighted. You gotta spend money to make money. You have to invest in your country if you want it to grow and flourish.