Not much time this morning, but I’d like to respond to the dustup between Mark Buchanan and Paul Krugman over whether energy (and other resource) use can be decoupled from GDP growth.
1. I get the impression that Buchanan identifies GDP with “stuff”, at least subconsciously. But GDP is value, what people are willing to pay for. When I teach an econ class, that’s a component of GDP. If an extra student shows up, that’s GDP growth. Of course, a lot of GDP really is stuff, but as economies develop they tend to become less stuffy. Overall not enough, but how unstuffy they could become is an empirical, not a theoretical matter.
2. But I agree with Buchanan that increases in energy efficiency alone are unlikely to accomplish what we need to contain climate change. Absent changes on other fronts, the growth of demand for energy services will simply swamp the effect of greater efficiency. This has been true in the past and any realistic projection puts it in our future as well.
3. And Buchanan is also right that there is no historical precedent for the kind of decoupling between economic growth and fossil fuel use (let’s be specific here) that we would need to meet both economic and climate goals. The notion of foregoing most of our remaining supplies of extremely energy-dense minerals flies in the face of all of human history. That’s why it will be a big challenge to bring it off. The challenge begins with putting in place a policy that prohibits most fossil fuel development. You can discuss the particulars, but there is no getting around the need for a binding constraint. The reason is exactly the one that Buchanan pinpoints: increases in efficiency and even increases in renewable energy sources alone will not be sufficient by themselves to offset the energy demands stemming from global GDP growth.
Can we compel most fossil fuels to stay in the ground and still have economic growth? Since this is about growth in value and not necessarily stuff, the answer still seems to be yes. But we won’t have a sufficient shift away from stuffiness without measures that prohibit dangerous levels of fossil fuel extraction. An unprecedented change in the trajectory of economic growth requires unprecedented policies.
Postscript: I’m not interested in whether “unlimited” economic growth at some distant future date is incompatible with resource constraints. It’s also true that economic growth can’t continue after the universe collapses in on itself. We’ll let distant future people, if they still exist, worry about this.