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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 07:17 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 07:17 | SYDNEY

Why technology alone won't save the environment



26 February 2016 15:39

At my desk, I have two computer screens. Last week, they had a battle.

On one screen, I had an environmentally upbeat piece by John Quiggin explaining how the world passed peak paper in 2013, even though the amount of information stored has exploded. Quiggin then discussed how this good news story could translate into a future with less use of oil, steel, and coal, even though economic growth will continue.

On the other screen I had the downbeat piece recently published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that predicted '(i)n short, the world is likely to be awash in fossil fuels for decades and perhaps even centuries to come.'

Which screen won? I suspect they both did.

First, one of Quiggin's main points is that you can have economic growth without the need for ever-more resources. I think, and hope, that is right.

Second, the Journal of Economic Perspective piece was talking about how likely it was that, absent policy action, renewables would replace fossil fuels anytime soon. Before reading that piece, I was hopeful that we could rely on technological improvements, along with small policy interventions, to get us over the line. But that piece highlighted how technological improvements can also make fossil fuels more abundant, and some of the hurdles renewables face in replacing fossil fuels. For example, the authors do some back of the envelope calculations assessing the cost competitiveness of electric vehicles. They conclude '(t)hese basic calculations make it clear that at least for the next decade or two, electric vehicles face an uphill battle.'

This does not contradict Quiggin's peak-resource vision, which is based on more efficient use of resources and the 'information economy', which 'allows us to break the link between improving living standards and unsustainable growth in the extraction and consumption of material resources'. Quiggin does touch on renewables a bit, but that's not a central part of the piece.

What the Journal of Economics Perspectives piece did was underline the need for policy intervention if we are to shift to renewables. Quiggin might be right, and we will pass peak coal and oil. But that may not be enough. Many scientists tell us we need dramatic declines.

One worry I have with Quiggin's piece is that its focuses is on paper alone. What about all resources devoted to information storage and computation? My office may use less paper than an office from the past, but what about total resources?

And finally, we should be careful in calling peaks of anything. Peak oil, for example, has been called before. A couple of years ago, people were getting excited about the possibility that we may have passed peak driving. Courtesy of Calculated Risk, the answer is definitely not yet.

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