New Economic Metrics to Address Our Climate Crisis

January 29, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard


Every reader of this post has lived his or her life in a Growth Economy. It is all we know. It is our way of life. Think about how the economic health of any developed country is measured. All the metrics concentrate on growth, expansion and output. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an output. We measure the success of a nation’s economy by how much growth has occurred.


Ever growing GDP is counter to slowing global warming and solving our climate crisis. Where is the measurement of well-being of the citizenry? Where is the measurement of the well-being of Nature? Where is the measurement of sustainability through stewardship of the planet? Where is the measurement of anything related to pollution, waste, health of the lands and oceans?


Growth Economy metrics reward behaviors that lead to pollution, poor health, depression and destruction of the biosphere’s ability to support life. 


Growth Economies have created historically unprecedented wealth, higher standards of living, scientific breakthroughs, and just about all non-natural elements of civilization. They served their purpose, but they are no longer productive. Too much of a good thing, they are now literally killing us and all living things. Growth Economies have run their course. Their metrics must be retired.


GDP will give way to new economic metrics that include carbon footprints and offsets, and vastly lower consumption levels. Metrics must therefore change from measuring only economic growth, to metrics that focus on well-being and the health of the biosphere.



The Social Cost of Carbon


The social cost of carbon reflects the global damage of emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for its impact in the form of warming temperatures, more severe storms, rising sea levels, etc. Economists see it as a powerful policy tool that could bring rationality to climate decisions. It’s what we should be willing to pay to avoid emitting that one more ton of carbon. Eliminating carbon emissions will be the single best public health effort we can make.


Levels of Consumption and Waste


For many centuries, as humans depleted local resources, they have simply moved to other regions where resources were available. That is no longer an option as our present technologies and processes are degenerating the entire planet. We will have to reduce ecosystem resource use and waste generation considerably. It requires valuing, protecting, and strengthening what we term ecosystem services.


This metric will show how well we are doing in reducing our consumption and waste. It is this metric that will place strong downward pressure on GDP.


Percentage of Total Energy that is Fossil Fuels


The rapid conversion away from fossil fuels to all forms of clean, non-polluting energy is crucial. Currently the percentage of global energy that is obtained from fossil fuels is 77%. This number is now measured annually. 


The 2030 goal is no more than 30% of global energy provided by fossil fuels. By measuring globally on a daily basis, we can react quickly to address waste and inefficiencies. 


Global and National Annual Totals of Greenhouse Gas Emissions


Currently humanity is emitting approximately 37 gigatons of greenhouse gases each year. GHG emissions are invisible, so we don’t see the problem or the fact that it is growing every day. We have trouble believing what we can’t see. This is an underlying reason for resistance to acknowledging climate change.


Globally, the metric should be an average reduction of 5% of GHG emissions per year


Reduction of CO2 Parts Per Million (PPM) in Atmosphere


The CO2 PPM in earth’s atmosphere has reached the highest number in three million years. It is at 415 PPM. This is the critical issue relative to global warming and hence climate change. Even dramatically reduced annual emissions will add to this PPM number. Resident CO2 continues to accumulate as CO2 stays in the atmosphere for decades and even centuries.


We must remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than we are emitting into it by an average of 50 gigatons a year from 2020 to 2030.


How do we measure?


Measurements will increase in frequency and accuracy as terrestrial and satellite sensors are deployed, along with big data number crunching power and artificial intelligence enabled data analysis.


Technological advancements like miniaturization of sensors, high-speed data transfer, and enhanced storage capabilities have led to a new wave of satellites and terrestrial sensors specially built for tracking pollution and pinpointing sources of emissions. Monitoring of the manufacture of stuff can track how much waste is produced in the production cycle, how durable and long lasting the products are (the opposite of planned obsolescence), and how much of each product can easily and efficiently be placed back into production cycles.


All of the above metrics focus on the well-being of Nature and they include health advantages for humans and other species. In my next post, I’ll focus on the metrics and the means to measure human well-being.





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