Robert Delaney
SCMP Columnist
On Balance
by Robert Delaney
On Balance
by Robert Delaney

Climate change: it’s past time to count the environmental costs of economic growth

  • A clear accounting of the real environmental impact of our economies should be included in every GDP report
  • The call to action is ringing with renewed urgency as we grapple with the clear signs of a climate crisis
Homepage editors at major news outlets had a difficult challenge last week. What should get top billing: US economic growth blowing past expectations or the fact that July was set to be the Earth’s hottest month on record?
The two items shifted position as the stories were updated last Thursday, when the sets of data were released, and remained well above the fold for much of the day, along with stories about searing heat in Phoenix and wildfires on Greek islands.

This juxtaposition is becoming increasingly difficult to stomach, particularly in the way that the surprising growth of the US economy is treated as something completely disparate from the others.

It’s difficult to know exactly how much of our economic activity is responsible for the extreme weather driving people from their homes in Europe and Canada because of wildfires, or into their homes in many other parts of the northern hemisphere to escape the unprecedented heat.
We know that activities like smelting aluminium, raising livestock and transporting untold millions of needful things to our front doors send massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, trapping heat and, subsequently, causing increasingly disruptive climate events.

But too many of us have a persistent and Pavlovian response to news of economic growth: “strong growth good; weak growth bad”. And the deeper analyses that follow the headline numbers tend to focus on the political implications for those in power and/or the likelihood of further interest rate rises.


July 2023 expected to be world’s hottest month in recorded history

July 2023 expected to be world’s hottest month in recorded history
Before July’s heat and countless other meteorological data points showed us that warnings of climate scientists were accurate, negative viewpoints about economic growth mostly centred on how the wealthiest tend to reap the most and the neediest are left to fight for scraps.

These political arguments still resonate, as they should. But, as the weather events making headlines underscore more convincingly each year the warnings we’ve heard – and ignored – for decades, we have a far more compelling reason to question the utility of economic growth as a public good. It’s killing us in increasingly apparent ways.

The cost of living in a world getting rapidly hotter? It’s a killer

So what can we expect from the world’s two largest economies and carbon emitters?

Joe Biden’s White House regularly touts America’s Inflation Reduction Act, which allocates billions in subsidies and other support for green energy, as the answer.

This mobilisation of capital does more than any previous government initiative to hasten our transition to a lower-carbon economy, but you’d be hard pressed to find any climate scientist willing to say that this alone will halt the climate crisis. It’s going to take a broader effort.

There’s no one step we can expect everyone to take. We should, however, expect everyone to do something that reduces their carbon footprint. Anything.

This expectation will run up against resistance, of course. As we know from the way America’s right-wing assailed any measure designed to fight the spread of Covid-19 and demonised public health officials trying to grapple with a poorly understood new contagion, no weather-related crisis will be dire enough to make a large chunk of the country change their habits.


The surprising hurdle slowing China’s switch to green energy

The surprising hurdle slowing China’s switch to green energy
In China, meanwhile, a different dynamic is playing out. Beijing has declared that the country’s carbon emissions will continue to climb until 2030, and we can assume that no pressure from within or abroad will convince the government to change course.

So what’s to be done? Environmentalists warn that our economies are driving us into an environmental catastrophe of proportions that will ultimately cause them to unravel. We need to measure our economies differently, they insist, to reflect the probable damage our outputs cause. This isn’t a new argument. Nor will such an approach to economic data be easy.

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How do we measure the carbon footprint of the solar panel industry? How green are solar panels in terms of the greenhouse gases produced by mining the industrial metals, silicon refining and transport involved in their installation? The same questions apply for electric vehicles.

This is not an argument to halt the deployment of these vital technologies. It’s a call for a clearer accounting of the real environmental impact of our economies and an inclusion of this analysis in every GDP report.

The American right will call this a “woke” conspiracy. Let them. Their message will be lost in the smoke of our burning forests.

As thermometers reveal the accuracy of the climate warnings more clearly than ever, we will be forced to analyse the economic factors driving the crisis, and growth will no longer be treated as bullish news.

Robert Delaney is the Post’s North America bureau chief