The (Green) Tea: Implications of Technology and Industry on the Environment

By Emily Nguyen

The world is shifting towards a greener future. This year will be the first in which zero-carbon sources will play the dominant role in electricity generation in Britain. The country uses non-polluting sources — hydro, nuclear, solar and wind — to produce 47.9 percent of its electricity, compared with 46.7 percent from gas and coal. As the Chief Scientist for Greenpeace UK argues, “If you want to know whether a policy is a good idea, you include the benefits as well as the costs, and in this case the benefits include an economy fit for the 21st century, cleaner air, warmer homes and maximizing the chances of civilization surviving.” Despite the economic drawbacks such as higher costs and lower rates of production of developing new technology to help the environment, the pressure of building a sustainable society is crucial and necessitates a sacrifice of some economic prosperity.

One argument at the forefront of climate change is that humans are primarily in charge of the rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. This is mainly due to emissions into the atmosphere from fuel burning and energy use. Today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate, as recent greenhouse gas emission trends in the United States are upward, with increases between 0.5 and 1 percent per year over the past few decades. The fossil fuels and oil businesses produce lucrative economies; if these were to be regulated for climate change reduction, the economy would subsequently decrease. Therefore, it is important to determine whether to prioritize the environment or the economy, or whether an equilibrium can be found between the two.

Britain is on an upward trajectory as a leader in this movement, hoping to achieve its newly adopted net zero carbon emission target for 2050. Other nations such as Sweden and Paris have also begun to follow this movement sweeping the conservationist world. However, the costs must be considered as well as the benefits; Chancellor Philip Hammond has cautioned that this movement could cost the UK more than 1 trillion pounds. The Paris agreement of 2015, though a milestone, leaves a large distance to overcome before global warming can be stopped. To achieve that goal, trillions of dollars must be invested in wind and solar energy, batteries, electricity grids and a range of other clean-energy sources.

Investing in the environment inevitably leads to some downfall in the economy, a correlation that can be summarized by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). This approach seeks to relate the stages of economic development of a country to that of environmental degradation. As per capita income rises, societies become better able to redress market failure. This points to the fact that green improvement is reliant on a successful economy, and vice versa. At this point in the climate change argument, it is important to allow the environmental industry to grow in order to see eventual change. Thus a temporary economic sacrifice must be made to allow the green technology industry to grow and halt climate change in turn.

Attempting to grow the industry fast in the early stages of development when environmental degradation is rising may be counterproductive and unsustainable. This leads to an analysis of the pollution-income relationship, which suggests that rising per capita income can be accompanied by improvements in air and water quality. Several possibilities can be attributed to this cause; primarily, individual demand for environmental quality may rise with income. With a wider distribution of power, there is likely a greater politically effective demand for more quality. However, this relationship between higher income and higher environmental quality can also be due to the fact that as average income in a country rises, pollution-intensive production may be relocated to lower-income countries. This inevitably leads to an overview concluding that higher income countries are less environmentally detrimental.

Financial innovation is paving the way for investing in renewable energy as new, more efficient solar technologies are being developed. There has also been a rapid growth of renewables, especially wind, in the past 10 years and a steep decline of coal. New investment in renewable energy globally increased by 2 percent last year, to 280 billion dollars, with the U.S. second in the world at 41 billion dollars. An increasingly large amount of money invested in building green energy will result in a more sustainable environment, but this comes with considerable implications. While beneficial to the Earth, this transition could be detrimental to people themselves. Chancellor Hammond warns that the zero carbon emission target would mean less money for schools, police, and hospitals. It is important to find a balance between economic and environmental prosperity as green energy becomes a larger issue.

Although many would argue that climate change is significantly relevant, it is also possible that it may not be as drastic as previously thought. Richard Millar of Oxford University suggests that climate researchers have been underestimating the carbon “budget” compatible with the ambitions expressed in Paris. In order to ensure equilibrium, it is still necessary to make significant emissions cuts to be maintained for decades. Still, this would mean that the Earth could emit significantly more carbon dioxide than previously predicted, while still maintaining global warming well below a 2 degrees Celsius rise. According to Millar, this underestimated budget would make it unnecessary to push for greener energy, which leaves room for the rise of fossil fuel economies.

With the correlation between economics and the environment, the process of repair evidently results in some surrender of the economy. Nevertheless, solutions have been proposed to minimize this effect. Carbon Capture Technology is the process involving the disposal of carbon that plants take from the atmosphere, which would reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Ideally, biomass absorbs CO2 from the air through the process of photosynthesis; it is released again when it is burned to produce electricity in power plants but then immediately captured and stored underground. According to Dr. David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard, revenue would be generated by turning captured CO2 back into fuel. Even then, this technology is still flawed. The marginal cost of reducing emissions is currently far lower than the marginal cost of taking carbon dioxide straight from the atmosphere, but Dr. Keith believes that this price could still be lowered further. If anything, this proposal has prompted governments to take negative emissions more seriously, taking Britain as an example.

Climate change remains a large problem in today’s society. This problem lies not only in finding solutions, but also in the collateral damage that these solutions themselves would cause. Many businesses, especially the oil and gas industries, directly rely on the environment Therefore, enacting policies that benefit the environment at the expense of these industries would result in a decrease in economic productivity. This correlation between the environment and economic factors such as employment and GDP implies that at least one aspect must be minimized for the sake of the other. When considering the long-term repercussions of the environment, it seems necessary to concentrate more on the conservationist level. Rising technology such as Carbon Capture Technology could be viable options that would ultimately benefit both sides of the argument. In the end, climate is not a short-term game. And in the long term, ignoring the need for negative emissions is complacent at best.