WASHINGTON – If we knew for sure that man-made global warming were accelerating at a dramatic pace, threatening an imminent global catastrophe and the very survival of the world, then the most desperate counter measures would be appropriate. But we are not there. We have a major problem that is progressively getting worse; but not a catastrophe. The environmentalists of course believe the opposite, and therefore believe that in order to save the earth it is appropriate to impose punitive taxes against carbon based energy, while at the same time forcing the immediate adoption of still imperfect renewable energy technologies.
Green tech not quite mature
The fact is, as Biorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, argues in a compelling FT piece (Only cheaper “green” fuels will force changes in energy use, July 30, 2013), that: A) while global warming is real and is a serious problem, we do not have an impending catastrophe; B) the early adoption of green technologies as they exist today would not do much to reverse global warming; C) this “solution” amounts to imposing an enormous cost on consumers forced to use electricity that is much more expensive, because it is produced by as yet immature renewable energy technologies.
To be clear, Lomborg does not dismiss global warming as a fantasy, nor does he believe that the pursuit of renewable energy is wasteful. He has no “pro-carbon” bias. His argument is against the early adoption of green technologies that, while promising, are still not cost-effective. His simple point is that when wind, solar or whatever else will be really cost competitive, they will replace carbon based energy sources, as a matter of course, without any subsidies, special taxes or other ad hoc policy mandates.
Better technologies always displace older ones
As he points out, we did not get the world to adopt personal computers by subsidizing rudimentary electronics and by taxing typewriters, so that people would be forced to buy ineffective, primitive personal computers. Indeed, we had to wait for a certain level of technological development to allow innovators to come up with viable PCs that people really wanted to buy. When they became available and proved to be reliable, then typewriters became immediately obsolete.
By the same token, as soon as renewable energy will become truly competitive, it will not take much for the market to abandon fossil fuels, no matter how plentiful. If state of the art solar panels can provide reliable cheaper electricity, then it is good-bye to coal, natural gas and whatever else we have been using. As history demonstrates, when technologies become obsolete, they are tossed away, without even a second thought.
Promote green tech by spending a lot more on R&D
In order to get faster to our coveted “green tech” future, Lomborg proposed to subsidize R&D, as opposed to forcing the early adoption of the still imperfect technologies we have today. Of course spending a lot more on R&D is no guarantee of success. But it will create more opportunities for innovators to come up with real qualitative changes that may indeed create a new energy technology environment.
If we can produce electricity through solar at a fraction of what it costs to do so by using natural gas, you can bet that, just as the new cost-effective solar panels are rolled out, the gas wells will be closed down in no time. But to force people to abandon gas today, and use still imperfect wind or solar is bad policy and bad economics. And it gets even worse if you need to convince reluctant taxpayers that they really have to swallow this –today–because we are cooking up the planet and soon enough there will be gigantic floods and other man-made catastrophes.
Global warming is a serious matter. But it is best addressed by producing something truly viable that will replace carbon based energy sources. Therefore let’s redouble our research efforts in “green tech”. Forcing the adoption of half backed technologies ahead of time translates into additional costs, political resistance and negligible improvements. All in all, a bad idea.