Reducing Carbon Emissions Won’t Halt Economic Growth

PERI’s Robert Pollin says that at COP21, officials missed the opportunity to promote investment in the green economy, which would reduce poverty by creating jobs

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, we’re in the PERI institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. We’re carrying on our discussion with Bob Pollin, the co-director of the institute. He joins us now, thanks for joining us.

So as I said, co-directs PERI and he’s the author of the book Greening the Global Economy. After COP21 most of the media was all elated. Finally, the world had agreed that there is a climate change problem. Carbon emissions and climate change is for real, so on, and serious. We were not so elated on the Real News. We did various stories because nothing binding had come out of it, it was nice at least the language said something. But now we’re in an election campaign, the United States, and you wouldn’t know there ever was such a meeting in Paris. Climate change is a little bit on the radar between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton. Hilary says the words; Bernie says a little more. Of course on the republican side, I think, most of the candidates deny it exists.

But there are a lot of serious issues and debates taking place in Paris, and it seems it is part of what seems to paralyze this discussion. One of the big issue is China and India are as big or bigger, in China’s case, carbon emitters than the United States. The United States has no way to make China do anything about it or India. And if they don’t, why should we because without them doing it, [it doesn’t] just the U.S. doing it anyway. That’s one of the logics and then you get a fight on the other side. You know, as most people know you’ve had a hundred years of development so you can’t treat developing countries the same way.

So what do you make of that debate? And how does that debate get unglued? Because every time there’s a big international meeting, everything kind of stops there. In spite of we all agree rhetoric.

POLLIN: Well look, let’s take the case of India. I mean, it so happened that I was in India giving lectures on this issue immediately before the COP21 meeting in Paris. There didn’t seem to be a high level of consciousness, in India around this issue. At least among the people that I was discussing. The Indian government did make its commitment for the conference. It sounded pretty good.

But [if] when you looked inside it, what it said was that the Indian economy, we weren’t going to sacrifice economic growth and I agree with that. But they were going to get emissions down, they were basically going to stabilize the ratio of emissions down to GDP. Now if you, kind of work through all of that, what it means that in 20 years instead of having emissions grow 5 fold, you know, 500%, in 20 years, they’re only going to grow 300%. You can tell the same story for Indonesia and other big developing economies. Now when Prime Minister Modi of India got to the Paris conference, he made a point of saying we can’t, we Indians cannot be bullied into accepting the premises that we’re going to have to sacrifice growth and poverty reduction in the name of climate stabilization.

I agree with that. But my point in my book and elsewhere is that for India, for Indonesia, for the United States, for every country, there is no reason to have to sacrifice economic growth, employment creation, poverty reduction. Because if you invest in the green economy that is going to generate jobs. That is going to reduce poverty, it is going to create opportunities for small scale development of electricity and rural areas of India. That message didn’t get through and you’re absolutely right. The whole thing seems to have gone way into the back burner and is not being discussed.

So what we did not succeed in doing in Paris, in my mind, is two fundamental things. Number 1, we still don’t have a sense of the magnitude, the urgency if we believe climate science. China is talking about stabilizing emissions in 2030. They need to get emissions down by 20% by 2030. You know realistically, India needs to stabilize emissions where they are now or even get them down modestly; not let them grow 3 fold. Now, secondly, the United States needs to reduce emissions by 40-50%. That’s the magnitude of the challenge.

Secondly, the point is all of this can be done in the context of economic growth by investing in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy. It’s good for jobs, it’s good for poverty reduction, it’s good for community development, it’s good for urban development. Those are the messages that need to get through and that’s the way through which, in my view, is the only way we’re going to generate enough activity that is going to reach the stabilization goals.

JAY: In the United States the problem is, that requires public investment. If you can create the conditions, perhaps some private investment will follow. But to really get this thing going you need public investment and you can’t pass anything like that in the current Congress.

POLLIN: So we need public investment at the municipal level. I mean, I myself am working, for example, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That has made a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2040 and I’m helping them develop a plan to do that. And we can do that for various municipalities. [The key idea for] why should we be able to do that for a municipality? Because again, energy efficiency investments pay for themselves. Small scale community development of green energy is a reality; it’s realistic. So all communities, can do it on their own. Then we’ll have to have a movement that bubbles up and then eventually it will hit at the level of congress.

JAY: China, in some ways, is ahead of the United States on this, if I’m not right. In a sense, they’re way out ahead in producing solar panels less expensively and other forms of renewable energy.

POLLIN: Right. So, China is, yes, very committed to advancing a green energy sector. For the most part they’re using it as a basis for exports, to date. They’re not using it to reduce their own emissions. They are putting up clean energy. But they’re also still building coal power plants. They’re talking about stabilizing emissions by 2030 as I said. That’s not good enough, that’s not close to good enough. China is the biggest generator of CO2 emissions in the world. More than the United States. Historically, yes of course, the U.S. has done way more than China. The ethical position says that the United States and other rich countries have to do more than China. I agree with that. But China does not have to sacrifice economic growth. But what the rich countries, the United States should do, is set up a fund to support green investments, in Indonesia, in Latin America, in the Caribbean. I mean, you know in Haiti, again, half the world’s sector has no electricity at all. So bring in green electricity. It’s a tremendous historic opportunity. That’s what I think should come out of COP21. It didn’t but that’s the direction the global economy needs to get to.

JAY: So in the U.S. the breakthroughs are possible, the city levels, maybe some state levels. While congress if it continues to be controlled; because it’s not just republicans, there’s a lot of democrats that don’t want to put money into it as well.

POLLIN: Well, you know, democrats are of the view that this is bad for jobs as well. I’m trying to convince them that it’s not bad for jobs. Of course it’s bad for coal miner jobs, no question about it. But we need to think of a way to cushion the transition for coal miners and that can be done fairly easily. In fact, I’m working on a study on that right now. But as it is, there’s 80 thousand coal miners in this country. There’s 157 million jobs, people in the labor market. We should be able to come up with a way to create at least a decent transition for everyone in the coal mining sector, that should be critical. Once we do that I think that will dissipate the opposition among labor and democrats to agree an agenda.

JAY: Alright, thanks very much for joining us, Bob.

POLLIN: Okay, thanks very much Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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