Is a bad economy good for the environment?
A recession may be a cruel remedy for environmental degradation. But some experts say the earth welcomes the breathing room.
The phrase “It’s not easy being green” may never seem truer than during this economic slide.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
For the first time in 25 years of asking the question, the Gallup Poll recently found that a majority of Americans, 51 percent, say that economic growth should be given priority over environmental concerns.
As recently as 2000, only 23 percent of Americans wanted the economy considered first, with 70 percent saying the environment should rank higher.
That’s enough to make Al Gore want to hit “delete” on his slide-show presentation on global warming.
But a number of environmentalists and economists, while concerned about changing attitudes, say the picture is far from one of total gloom. For one thing, the downturn in worldwide industrial production has meant fewer greenhouse gases are being emitted, slowing their growth in the atmosphere and, in turn, the pace of global warming.
Other pockets of good news have emerged, too. A recent report on the state of the world’s forests, for example, suggests that pressure to clear stands of trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, has declined because of lower demand for wood products and for growing crops such as palm oil, soybeans, and rubber, which often displace forests.
And while low gasoline prices, as well as price-cutting by desperate car dealers, means that buying a huge SUV may be more attractive, low prices for crude also have slowed interest in projects such as extracting oil from Canadian tar sands and shale in the Rocky Mountains, projects whose potential environmental effects worry environmentalists.
By one set of calculations, for example, Europe will produce 7 percent fewer carbon emissions by 2020 than earlier thought.
In the US, the No. 2 emitter of greenhouse gases, demand for oil in January was down 7 percent from January of the previous year, says Trevor Houser, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and director of the Energy & Climate Practice at the Rhodium Group in New York.
In China, the world’s No. 1 greenhouse-gas emitter, power demand in January was down 14 percent, compared with the year before, Mr. Houser says. “That’s following five years where we’d seen 15 percent year-on-year growth.”
All the talk about China building two new coal-fired power plants a week is outdated, he says. “Existing power plants are losing business and new power-plant construction has slowed to a crawl.”
If that 15 percent decline in power persisted for all of 2009 – far from certain, he concedes – it would mean that China had cut its carbon emissions by an amount equal to the entire greenhouse-gas emissions of Germany over that period.
Environmentalists realize that a recession is a cruel remedy for climate change. “No one would argue that a recession is the way to solve our climate problems,” says Manish Bapna, executive vice president and managing director of the World Resources Institute. But, he allows, “it puts a little time back on the carbon clock.”
“It’s not a blockbuster impact,” adds Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “You would have to have a screaming downturn and no manufacturing at all to change that [worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions] in a huge, measurable way.”
Environmentalists are more encouraged about how efforts to stimulate economies, especially in China and the US, may have “green” effects. Japan and South Korea also have announced stimulus plans that contain “green” aspects.