Ross Gelbspan: $350 billion for 350 ppm

Cosmically enough, 350 turns out to be a magic number for the 21st Century.

That is the number of parts of atmospheric carbon dioxide that could spare us from the ravages of climate change.

It is also the number that could finance the transformation of this civilization, with its intolerable poverty and grotesque inequity, into a far more cooperative, secure and peaceful world.

The 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the level that NASA’s James Hansen and other scientists have determined is needed to stabilize the global climate. Absent that reduction very, very quickly, the planet will soon begin to undergo what the IPCC calls “rapid and irreversible” changes.

Since carbon concentrations, emitted by both industrial and developing countries, are rising by more than 2 parts per million each year, the task – and the cost — of getting back to a “safe” level of 350 is formidable.

It will take an investment of about $350 billion a year (for five to 10 years) to achieve that solution through the most effective, direct and ultimately prosperous route possible – a coordinate global public works program to rewire the world with clean energy.

Forget carbon capture and storage. That is a mesmerizing fantasy, based on unproven and potentially catastrophic technology, to allow us to continue to burn coal. From a more cynical viewpoint, carbon sequestration represents a full-employment act for companies like Bechtel, Halliburton and, of course, Peabody coal.

Forget schemes like “cap and trade.” Trading may represent a starting point, but it is incapable of propelling a global energy transition. For too many people, “cap and trade” reflects a misplaced faith in the power of markets. “Market-based” mechanisms, after all, have enriched the global few at the expense of the global many. An unquestioning belief in the omnipotence of markets, moreover, represents an abdication of will and responsibility. We can not solve global warming through the free play of markets. We need to take control of an economic system that is driven by the dynamic of profit-maximization – not by environmental protection or an ethic of global social responsibility.

What nature requires to preserve a stable environment is a direct investment in non-carbon, non-nuclear energy sources – in wind and solar and tidal and ocean-current power, in small scale hydro-power and, ultimately, in a new hydrogen economy.

And that investment amounts – poetically enough – to $350 billion a year.

That figure was first identified by energy policy specialists and economists from the Tellus Institute, a blue-ribbon energy policy think tank, as well as by experts from such institutions as Tufts University, Harvard University, Boston University, Stockholm Environment, Woods Hole Research Organization and other institutions.

Coincidentally, that same figure was subsequently identified by former World Bank Economist Sir Nicholas Stern. In his famous Stern Review, the economist identified the $350 billion figure as the amount needed to propel a clean energy revolution. That figure, Stern noted, amounts to about 1 percent of the world’s total gross domestic product.

Eight years before the Stern Review surfaced, an informal group of policy analysts, economists and utility presidents, developed a set of three policy strategies to stabilize the global climate.

A central platform was the provision of between $300 and $350 billion a year for about 10 years to provide clean energy to developing countries.

The fund represents one of three concurrent policy measures needed to propel a worldwide energy revolution and, in the process, to help forge a far more secure, prosperous and equitable world.

There are a number of ways to secure that $350 billion. One mechanism involves a carbon tax on the countries of the North. Another mechanism, proposed by a former British cabinet minister, could involve a tax on international air travel.

The mechanism we prefer involves a very small tax of a quarter of a penny per dollar on international financial transactions – when countries and corporations exchange yen for euros and euros for dollars. Today the commerce in these currency transactions amounts to nearly $2 trillion per day. A tax of $0.025 per dollar would net out (for technical reasons) to about $350 billion a year.

It boils down to a tiny tax on global finance on preserve the global environment.

There are two other elements to the plan as well:

The first involves a switch in subsidies in industrial countries. Today, the world’s wealthy countries spend about $250 billion a year to subsidize oil and coal development. In the US alone, those subsidies amounted to more than $45 billion last year – the same year that ExxonMobil trumpeted the largest profit margin of any corporation in history.

The second element of the plan involves the establishment, within the Kyoto framework, of a progressive fossil fuel efficiency standard that goes up by five percent per year.

Under this plan, every country in the world would begin at its current baseline to increase its fossil fuel efficiency by 5 percent a year. That means each country would produce the same amount next year with five percent less carbon fuel. Or it would produce five percent more with the same amount of carbon fuel. Since no economy grows at 5 percent for very long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.

Developing countries would be enabled to participate in a world-wide transition to non-carbon energy because of the $350 billion fund which would provide them the clean energy needed to raise living standards for their people.

On the ground, countries would reach this 5 percent goal for the first few years simply through efficiencies – simply by getting the waste out of their current energy systems. When those cheap efficiencies became exhausted, countries would meet the five percent by installing more and more renewable technologies – most of which are 100 percent efficient according to a fossil fuel standard.

That step, in turn, would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them economically competitive with coal and oil.

The 350 needed to stabilize the atmosphere – and the $350 (billion) needed to change the world’s energy systems could actually yield other dividends – perhaps as important for a stable social and political climate as for a stable climate.

For starters, it would create millions and millions of jobs – especially in developing countries. Economists point out that every dollar invested in energy in poor countries creates far more wealth and far more jobs than the same dollar invested in any other sector of the economy. Were poor people in continental interiors to have access to village solar facilities – and poor people in coastal cities receive power from ocean current and tidal devices – those energy sources would provide them the means to start small businesses and grow indigenous industries. In short, it could be the first step toward turning impoverished and dependent countries into trading partners.

A global transition to clean energy could raise living standards abroad without compromising ours. It could undermine the economic desperation that gives rise to so much anti-Western sentiment. It could jump the renewable energy industry into being a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.

Ultimately, a global public works program to rewire the world with clean energy would bring all the nations of the world together around a common global project.

Significantly, it coincides with other global trends that are already outpacing our outdated worldviews.

Like it or not, the economy is becoming truly globalized.

The globalization of communications, which represents a breathtaking development, now allows anyone in the world to communicate with anyone else anywhere else in the world.

And, since it is no respecter of national boundaries, the global climate affects us all. There is no region on the planet that is not already experiencing ominous distortions from our inflamed atmosphere.

A real 350 – on several different levels — could hold the key to our species future. It could hopefully avert the most nightmarish and disruptive changes in our natural world. It could begin to bring the nations of the world together in a common project that transcends traditional alliances and national antagonisms.

In short, a real 350 – translated into a worldwide project to rewire the globe with clean energy – could provide an enduring pathway to peace – peace among people and peace between people and nature.

Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On and Boiling Point, maintains the website:

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