Economist: Ignoring ‘fantastic opportunity’ of gas is foolish

Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg rose to prominence following the publication in 1998 of The Skeptical Environmentalist. He has since angered many global warming activists by arguing that the climate fight has wrongly focused on cutting carbon pollution rather than investing in research and development of new technologies.

An adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, he’s also the director of the Copenhagen Consensus, an economic analysis group that studies how governments and philanthropists should spend aid and development money. I caught up with him when he visited London this month to talk about fracking, renewable energy and organic food.

Q: You’ve been looking at the benefits of fracking. Tell me what you’ve found.

A: Fracking in a U.S. context has dramatically lowered U.S. carbon emissions, about 400 to 500 million tons, compared to the entire impact of the EU and Kyoto Protocol of about 250 million tons. So the U.S. has inadvertently lowered its carbon emissions by about twice as much just by making cheap gas available. We’ve actually managed to find a technology that’s cheaper than coal and delivers much more climate benefits.

Q: What about the negatives? Fracking’s had a very bad press in Europe.

A: There are significant issues, mostly around the pollution of water resources. Very definitely that’s something we need to regulate. It’s a very well understood technology. So, yes, we should regulate it, but to ignore the fantastic opportunity both of cheaper energy and lower CO2 emissions seems foolish.

Q: You’ve mentioned the water table, but what about the amount of water that fracking uses? Do you have any concerns about that?

A: That’s a discussion that has to be had at each individual site because water is a very place-dependent resource. In some places you may have to say that’s not worth our while, we don’t want to spend that extra water.
“If you worry about environmental concerns, it’s very very clear it should be about air and water pollution, which kills about 6 million people in the world today.”

Q: Do you think renewables can bring the same kinds of carbon-cutting benefits as fracking?

A: If you look at what Europe has actually managed to do, it’s very little. With all of our efforts, we’ve perhaps reduced those 200 to 250 million tons. A lot of it is accounting, a lot of it is by reducing energy uptake, and some of it is renewables. But also a lot of it is a switch, for instance, to Russian gas. In the U.K.’s case it was a switch from coal to gas.So in many ways, I’m not sure we have reduced very much with renewables. If we look at what the U.S. has managed to do with renewables, it’s very small in comparison with what they’ve managed to do from fracking. We’re talking a tenth from wind energy and a 20th from ethanol and solar.

Q: What about in poorer nations without the grid infrastructure to deal with bigger power plants?

A: Green renewables can be very good. It’s very obvious for these off-grid cell phone masts to build a solar panel and battery. It’s a great idea. That’s something that will happen simply because it’s a more effective measure.

Q: So what should Europe be doing to cut emissions?

A: For this decade, we should probably be switching to frack gas, and we should be encouraging China, India and Russia to do the same. In the long run, fracking gas is not a panacea. It’s still a fossil fuel, it still emits an amount of CO2. So it’s not a solution, it’s a transition.And that way we need to focus on getting cheaper, greener energy sources. That’s about investing in innovation rather than subsidies. In Europe we invested a lot of our money in subsidies of existing, inefficient technologies.

Q: You said you see fracking as a transition tool. What do you see as the future of energy?

A: I don’t think anyone really knows. It depends on where can we get breakthroughs of technology. The only thing we can say certainly is that unless these technologies are cheap and can provide baseload, they’re not going to be widely adopted. I can’t see a future without solar, but I can’t see a future for solar without some solution for storage. That’s the challenge we’re faced with.

Q: Are countries like Japan and Germany right to be pulling back from nuclear power?

A: No. Nuclear is still rather expensive given the huge construction cost and decommissioning cost. But clearly once you have it going, you shouldn’t be switching them off, as Germany and Japan are proposing. You can have a discussion about should we building more nuclear plants. I think the answer is no, the answer is, you should be trying to find cheaper nuclear power plants. The fourth generation that’s been promised to us as incredibly cheap and incredibly safe.

Q: You’ve also been looking at organic food. Tell me your findings.

A: The problem I have with organic food is it’s another of those feel-good ideas where you think you’re doing the environment and our health a lot of good. But the honest answer is it’s not. If you buy organic food, it’s less efficient, and hence you need to produce it out of more area [of land]. That area has got to come from somewhere and typically you’ll find it by cutting down nature. At the same time we have this idea that it’s more healthy for you, but actually there’s a Stanford study that showed it’s about the same in all objective characteristics.

Q: What benefits can genetically modified foods bring?

A: GM food fundamentally can give you higher productivity and hence you need to cut down less nature because you can produce on less land. That’s the biggest environmental benefit. It can also lead to lower pesticide load because you only have to spray the pesticide limitedly or not at all because you have the pesticide built into the plant itself. You can have other benefits like having a higher retention of fertilizer, which means less fertilizer application and less nutrient leakage.

Q: What’s the biggest environmental challenge the planet faces?

A: I’m always a little uncomfortable with the word the planet, because the planet is fine. It doesn’t really care what we do. It’s about humans, and that depends hugely on who you ask. If you worry about environmental concerns, it’s very very clear it should be about air and water pollution, which kills about 6 million people in the world today. That’s vastly more than whatever you can come up with as a reasonable estimate for how many people global warming kills.

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