• Friday, Oct 22, 2021
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OP-ED: The question of who should pay for climate change, not how

  • Published at 10:19 pm September 25th, 2021
Rangpur Flood
File photo of Villagers row a makeshift raft through flood waters in Rangpur on Saturday, August 28, 2021 Dhaka Tribune

Our entire problem with climate change is that using technologies which emit carbon now is cheaper than using those which don't

So who should pay for climate change? 

Our entire problem with climate change is that using technologies which emit carbon now is cheaper than using those which don't. 

But the costs of emitting carbon arrive in the future, making those currently cheaper technologies more expensive over time. 

That, in a nutshell, is the problem we face: Cheap now but expensive in the future, or expensive now and cheaper in that future without the climate change?

This then gets amplified by the fact that the people who will suffer those costs in that future aren't us. 

They might be our children, maybe some poor folk on the other side of the world – or this one. 

We thus pay too little attention to the long-term costs and emit too much because to do so is currently cheap.

We clearly need to change things. 

Indeed, we are changing things about as fast as anyone has ever changed the power source of an entire economy. 

That's good, but there are still unsolved queries here. For example, who should be paying the costs for all the disruption? 

As this newspaper pointed out, the current international agreement is that the rich countries should provide $100 billion to the poor to pay for these costs. 

This newspaper is all in favour of that too but I'm not so sure, despite the fact that disagreeing with the editor is a career limiting move for a writer.

For what, actually, is it that should be paid for? 

The usual answer is that the extra costs of beating climate change. 

Sea levels will be higher, temperatures higher, crop yields might fall and so on. 

Those who suffer from these things should be compensated by those who have got rich on the carbon emissions.

It's possible to see the point, yes, but I think that it does rather miss the greater issue at hand. Which is that all of the predictions of woe to come depend not upon the emissions from the already rich countries. 

Rather, the big issue is the rise in emissions as the currently poor countries become rich. 

If they do that using the same technologies – coal, oil, gas – then that's what produces the massive boom in emissions and so the damages from climate change. 

Noting this rather changes the calculation. 

We can still remain with the idea that it should be the global rich carrying the burden. 

They do, after all, have the broadest shoulders. 

But think this through for a moment. Our task is not so much to spread the costs, the blame, for what has already happened. 

It is to enable to the poor to get rich without using oil, coal and gas.

That is, the actual costly thing – or at least the most important costly thing – is developing the technologies that allow development without the use of fossil fuels. 

It is far more important for the health of the planet to develop cheap solar, efficient and effective batteries, the crops that will thrive even in the rising temperatures and so on. 

All of this is something that the rich countries are already doing. Although, to be fair, it's not the countries themselves but people within them. 

The necessary tools for Bangladesh to have a full electricity supply to every house in the country – without fossil fuels – are being built. 

Given the way that business works these will in time be available in Bangladesh. 

We can indeed look at climate change as a game of good folks and bad, one in which we make the bad pay for their actions. 

That's not a wholly useful way to look at this problem though. 

We have a technological problem, one that is going to be solved by developing new, non-fossil fuel technology. 

Developing those technologies will help poor countries more than simply sending money would. Because it's an actual solution to the problem rather than merely a compensation for it.  

Make renewable power cheap enough that it becomes the preferred source of energy purely on cost grounds and we've solved the problem itself. 

That means that all of that work currently being done on renewables is exactly the kind of assistance that poor countries need. 

Sure, it's righteous that something is done about climate change. 

But developing the technologies that solve it as a problem are more of an aid than just sending money. 

So, that's what the rich countries should be doing to aid the poorer. Solving the problem not just compensating for it.    

 

Tim Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London

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