Arguments Against Decarbonization Crumble, Fossil Fuel Divestment Momentum Builds

By Walter Borden

Two recent reports challenge the conventional wisdom that decarbonization via carbon taxes or other methods in concert with divestment from fossil fuel marketers means diminished prosperity. Both reports were widely covered and come from authoritative international groups. Both the New Climate Economy Project  and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) find that robust policy action reducing carbon emissions would have very limited negative effects on economic growth and shared prosperity. They also advance substantive arguments and analysis that such policies may indeed accelerate growth.

Notably and not without a soupçon of irony, economist and vocal climate change climate skeptic Richard Tol, argued in 2013:

In sum, there is no carbon bubble. If there were a carbon bubble, it would not be about to burst. If it would burst, the economic impact would be minimal.

Coal Stocks Lag S&P and its getting worse as momentum builds for divestment
Coal Stocks Lag S&P and its getting worse as momentum builds for divestment

So interestingly, there is agreement from distinct and opposite quarters that decreased use of fossil fuels poses limited economic risk. For example, as Paul Krugman wrote earlier this week in reference to the two reports from the New Climate Economy Project and the IMF:

This might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses….

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the IMF paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And we may be in later stages of divestiture than some opine. For example, Fund Balance has created  an ETF  on the Motif Platform that tracks Coal Stock prices. It was initiated after Stanford University’s signal move to divest from coal stocks. This ETF is down 32% since inception in May 2014 vs. 5.9% return for the S&P 500 and down 77% over the past five years vs. a 109% return for the S&P.

Coal stocks have fallen even further since major Universities began divesting.
Coal stocks have fallen even further since major Universities began divesting.

What of the argument that China and India will continue to rapidly increase their respective carbon emissions even as US and EU emissions fall? We can see now that there are many health benefits and hence productivity gains from cleaner air and water. Factor in the inevitable pressure such efforts will put on these two nations to curb emissions as well as their budding sustainability movements (not to mention pollution so bad that major cities must be shuttered and entire rivers cleaned ever more frequently), and such arguments suddenly reveal their superficiality.

So, critical mass for decarbonization is ever closer as the World Council of Churches, Rockefeller Foundation, Google among many other large scale organizations join in with major universities in their divestment commitments. As Eric Schmidt said when asked about Google’s withdrawal from fossil fuel promoters/renewable energy policy antagonists, The American Legislative Council a.k.a. ALEC:

“The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told NPR’s Diane Rehm in explaining the decision. “And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”