Today, Western Cycles interviews David Stern. He is an energy and environmental economist working on the role of energy in the economy and the drivers and mitigation of climate change. He has his own blog stochastictrend.blogspot.com, with very good reports on his recent research as well as developments in energy, the environment, economics, and the science of science. You can follow him on Twitter.
-When did you became interested in the energy and the environment on economics?
I was interested in the environment from an early age and so I studied geography, biology (and chemistry) in the last 2 years of high school in England (1981-3) and then went on to study geography at university (in Israel). I had to pick another field and initially chose business as something practical but quickly switched to economics. I then realised that economics could explain a lot of geography and environmental trends. It was only when I went to do my PhD starting in 1990 that the faculty at Boston University at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies which was linked to the Geography Department there were really focused on the role of energy in the economy and environmental trends that I became interested in understanding the role of energy. So I got a PhD in geography officially but had quite a lot of economics training and over time drifted closer to economics, so now I am even director of the economics program at the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU.
-I think that my generation is more informed on climate change because of the work of people like you. Do you think the same? Describe us some of your research.
Well, I think it has just become a much bigger and obvious issue as the global temperature has increased. The awareness of what is happening has been driven by people in the natural sciences. I have done some research applying time series models used in macroeconomics to modelling the climate system and though our first paper was published in Nature in 1997 and we have been cited on that in IPCC reports it has largely been on the fringes of climate science. My view of that research is that it takes an entirely different approach to modelling the system than most climate scientists use (mostly they use big simulation models called GCMs) and finds similar results which strengthens their conclusions. Most of my research has been on the role of energy in economic growth and the effect of economic growth on emissions and concentrations of pollutants. The effect of energy on growth is much more complicated than many people think – it seems that energy is more important as growth driver in the past in the developed world – adding energy when you have little has more effect than when you already have a lot. On pollution I’ve argued that the idea of the environmental Kuznets curve – that as countries get richer eventually growth will actually be good for the environment and reduce pollution is either outright wrong or too simplified. Instead in fast growing countries like China, growth overwhelms efforts to reduce pollution, while in slower growing developed economies clean up can happen faster than growth.
-The Paris Summit filled your expectations as an environmental economist?
It was probably better than expected give the lack of success in getting agreement before then. Countries pledges are too little to reach the goal of limiting warming to 2C and we will probably have to remove carbon from the atmosphere in a big way later in this Century. The real question is whether countries will actually fulfil their voluntary pledges. OTOH low-carbon technology is developing fast and that is a positive that is making achieving the goals looking more possible.
-How dangerous would be the environmental policy of the United States under the Trump administration on climate change?
It will delay action, unclear how much effect it will really have. Encouraging the development of new technology is important and having the largest and leading economy not focused on that is a negative. The US can’t actually leave till late 2020 and Trump has left the door open to submitting a weaker INDC in the interim and claiming victory. The US will still be involved in UNFCCC talks etc.
-What do you think about the emissions of developing countries as they become industrious?
Developing country emissions are now larger than developed country emissions. But there is a big difference between China which now has higher per capita emissions than the European Union and say India which has still very low per capita emissions. China needs to take action and has made a moderately strong pledge. We should expect much less from India say. India is, though, strongly encouraging renewables development. Hopefully, technology is advancing fast enough that the poorest countries will end up going down a lower carbon path anyway as fossil fuel technologies gradually phase out.
-Since 2006 China has become the greatest global polluter and emissions still growing continuously. China has no plans for decrease these emissions until 2030. What do you think about the attitude of this country?
They say they will peak emissions by 2030. In terms of reduction in emissions intensity per dollar of GDP their goal is quite strong. In the last 3 years Chinese CO2 emissions have been constant. Some argue they are already peaking now. I am a bit more skeptical. We need to see a few more years. There are several reasons why China is pursuing a fairly strong climate policy including energy security, encouraging innovation and reducing local air pollution as well as realising that they can benefit a lot from reducing their own emissions because they are such a large part of the problem.
-In the long term, which kind of renewable energy would be the first to think about? Solar? Wind?
Solar – it has a greater potential total resource and looks like eventually prices will be below wind. Wind of course is strong in places without much sunshine like the Atlantic Ocean off NW Europe. I’m concerned though about the environmental impact of lots of wind power. In the long-run I’m still hoping for fusion to work out 🙂
-Tell us about one of your favorite posts published by you on Stochastic Trend.
I’ve done less blogging recently as I now use Twitter for short things. Most of the posts are excerpts from papers or discussions of new papers. The most popular blogpost this year with visitors is:
Where I discuss our working paper on the role of coal in the Industrial Revolution. The research and writing of this paper took a very long time and I was really happy to be able to announce to the world that it was ready.
-Do you drive an electric car?
No, I don’t have a driving licence. My wife drives and we have a car but it is a large petrol-engined car that is not very efficient. We don’t drive it much though. We’ve driven less than 30,000 km since buying it in 2007.
-Have you ever visited Cuba? Are you interested? There are a lot of 1950s cars, but there are places with tropical nature.
No, I haven’t been to Cuba. The only place I’ve been in Latin America is Tijuana, Mexico. I’m not travelling that much recently as we now have a 1 1/2 year old child. But Cuba probably wouldn’t be high on my agenda. I travel mostly to either visit family or go to academic conferences and work with other researchers. The only time I flew somewhere outside the country I was living in just to go on vacation was when I flew from Ethiopia to Kenya. I was at an IPCC meeting in Ethiopia.
Very good answers, David. I hope I can keep in touch with you.
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