On Wednesday the 7th of February Oxford Climate Society had the pleasure of hosting Professor Dieter Helm, Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee and Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University, for a talk on natural capital and climate change.
Professor Helm began the talk by asking the audience to “think forward” to the mid-century and beyond, and how current environmental issues will look, as well as how they will fit into future society. It was stressed that we know emissions are going to increase beyond their current 400ppm of carbon dioxide concentration, especially if predictions of a mid-century oil burn occur. All of these trends are contrary to the goal of limiting climate change to 2°C of warming, with Professor Helm suggesting that no current policies are set to change that trend.
Alongside the increase in emissions in the future Professor Helm also stressed that population is set to increase to at least 9 billion if not 10 or 12, as there is no certainty of a demographic transition to low birth rates. Though combined with this is the expected continual growth in gross domestic product (GDP), with an estimated 2-3% growth rate along the century meaning people may be 16 times wealthier than today by 2100, which has a knock-on effect on the rate of consumption, with a likelihood of increased consumption by society. Alongside these future estimates a more worrying one is that we may eliminate half the species on the planet by the end of the century.
Professor Helm stressed there seem to be no bigger issues than the problems of biodiversity loss and climate change and how to deal with these problems but also pointed out that it is a fairly hopeless task to try and stop the damage, the focus must be on mitigation and adaptation.
GDP growth is seen as a good thing, but it was demonstrated that this can be closely mapped to the decline in biodiversity. In fact, it was stressed that a lot of economic activity has been about beating back nature and bringing land into agro-chemical cultivation. This success in raising economic growth at the cost of the environment has been one of the leading reasons in Professor Helm’s view for the low position the environment has as a government concern.
Irrespective of what some commentators say, Professor Helm stressed that the link between economic growth and emission growth has not been broken. “We are living beyond our means” meaning that we either have to stop GDP growth or measure economic growth properly by incorporating natural capital.
Professor Helm then began a discussion of economic theory, pointing out that production is generally seen as putting together factor inputs to produce an output. These inputs are human capital in labour and man-made capital in the form of assets but also natural capital. Professor Helm pointed out that in history we have been substituting natural capital for the other inputs, and generally this substitution is not justified.
Then when one considers the constraints on natural capital, namely with non-renewable resources the amount that remain and renewables their rate of regrowth after a portion of them have been used, one must consider how this effects economic growth.
The UK government committed to leaving nature in a better state than when it was received, which has been the contributing philosophy behind the recent 25-year environment plan. Professor Helm formulates two possible rules as mechanisms to attempt to ensure this. The “weak rule” is that one must keep the measure of natural capital constant and if you deplete non-renewables you must make compensation. The “strong rule” is the same but when non-renewables are depleted you must invest in a fund which increased natural capital.
Economic growth is ultimately driven by technological change, in Professor Helm’s view, and there is no evidence of this slowing down. But growth that runs down natural assets for temporary improvements in livelihood should not be considered economic growth, even though current GDP does consider it so.
Therefore, to get a more sustainable measure of growth one has to rebase it from a consumption model to an asset based one which looks at the stock of natural capital.
Professor Helm then looked at the 2°C target and pointed out its limitations. There is no scientific or ethical basis for viewing that temperature as the optimal rate to limit climate change to, particularity as the temperate global north will likely benefit from such a warming despite being the leading polluters. Professor Helm argued that the measure was selected simply for practical reasons.
Professor Helm then went on to point out that climate change is a simpler problem than biodiversity, one merely has to reduce emissions. But there are certain benefits to tackling biodiversity, namely it is localised meaning that an improvement in British biodiversity will function irrespective of biodiversity in other nations, unlike emissions where everyone needs to reduce to tackle climate change.
Professor Helm noted his scepticism around whether existing technologies can solve climate change, especially noting population growth. He stressed that the best area to attempt to make gains is likely solar, as the energy from the sun has a huge capacity that is not captured.
He went on to point out that conservation concerns and climate concerns do not always go hand in hand, such as renewable placement which may reduce emissions but destroy an important ecosystem. Therefore, one cannot single-mindedly pursue climate policy whilst ignoring other aspects of the natural environment.
The 25-year environment plan by the government was pointed to as seeking to cover both issues. Professor Helm finished by suggested that agriculture is the main area that should be focussed on when seeking to tackle the two problems. Almost all decarbonisation policies in agriculture improve biodiversity, concerns for soil carbon and emissions also cross over with preventing chemical uses that destroy ecosystems. The next crossover is in reforestation, which has so many benefits like flood defences, improving air quality and reducing emissions whilst also providing habitats and ecosystems. Alongside these are the need to adapt the landscape to deal with the effects of climate change, the building of coastal defences often creates unique habitats and the need to cover soil in times of drought requires incorporation of vegetation.
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