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Recession Realities

Economy vs. Environment: Consumer spending intended to revive the flagging world economy works against climate- change priorities

By David Owen

So far, the most effective way for a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol to cut its output of greenhouse gases has been to suffer a well-timed industrial implosion, as Russia did after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kyoto benchmark year is 1990, when the smokestacks of the Soviet military-industrial complex were still blackening the skies, so when Vladimir Putin ratified the protocol in 2004, Russia was already certain to meet its goal for 2012, the year the agreement expires. The signatories with the best emissions-reduction records—Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic—were all part of the Soviet empire and therefore look good for the same reason.

New Yorker writer David Owen peruses the magazine’s archives at the Conde Nast building, New York. Owen has been at the New Yorker since 1991. Before that he contributed to the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine.
Photo: Jorge Colombo
New Yorker writer David Owen peruses the magazine’s archives at the Conde Nast building, New York. Owen has been at the New Yorker since 1991. Before that he contributed to the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine.
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Most countries outside the former Soviet Bloc have had a tougher time, and the explanation isn’t complicated: The world’s principal source of manmade greenhouse gases has always been prosperity. The recession makes that relationship easy to see: Shuttered factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the unemployed drive less, turn down their furnaces, air conditioners, and swimming-pool heaters; struggling corporations cut back on air travel; even the affluent buy less junk. Gasoline consumption in the United States fell almost six percent in 2008. That was the result not of a sudden greening of the American consciousness but of the rapid rise in the price of oil during the first half of the year, followed by the full efflorescence of the current economic mess.

The environmental benefits of economic decline, though real, are fragile, because they are vulnerable to intervention by governments, which, understandably, want to put people back to work and get them buying non-necessities again—through programs intended to revive consumer spending (which has a big carbon footprint) and through public-investment to build things like new roads and airports (ditto). Our best intentions regarding conservation and carbon reduction inevitably run up against the realities of foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment. How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?

The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less—the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, slowed the spread of suburban sprawl, and killed the Hummer—then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Increases in fuel efficiency won’t be good for the environment unless they’re accompanied by fuel-tax increases or other powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile solo car commutes.

The prospects for a meaningful new worldwide climate agreement probably improved last fall, with the election of Barack Obama, but his commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction—to bringing the country out of recession while also reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions to 17 percent of their 2005 level by 2050—don’t pull in the same direction. The ultimate success or failure of Obama’s program will depend on our willingness, once the global economy is no longer teetering, to accept policies that will seem to be nudging us back toward the abyss.

Adapted from a New Yorker article (March 30, 2009)

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This article appeared in the July 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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