08 April 2010

Does Paul Krugman Advocate Energy Conservation and Deemphasize Technology? Yes

I have been having an interesting debate with a few economists in a previous thread about Paul Krugman's views of climate policy. I read his latest piece as emphasizing energy conservation and de-emphasizing technology. A few economists write in the comments that my reading is "absurd." This matters of course because anyone who thinks that we can stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at a low level via conservation while de-emphasizing technology just doesn't have a good grasp of the problem.

So I Googled around a bit to see what Krugman has said in the past. And guess what? He advocates energy conservation and de-emphasizes technology! Here are some of his earlier statements that are unambiguous on these matters and consistent with how I interpret his latest piece.

On the importance of energy conservation in a 2007 column:

There’s nothing heroic about California’s energy policy — but that’s precisely the point. Over the years the state has adopted a series of conservation measures that are anything but splashy. They’re the kind of drab, colorless stuff that excites only real policy wonks. Yet the cumulative effect has been impressive, if still well short of what we really need to do.

The energy divergence between California and the rest of the United States dates from the 1970s. Both the nation and the state initially engaged in significant energy conservation after that decade’s energy crisis. But conservation in most of America soon stalled: after a decade of rapid progress, improvements in auto mileage came to an end, while electricity consumption continued to rise rapidly, driven by the growing size of houses, the increasing use of air-conditioning and the proliferation of appliances.

In California, by contrast, the state continued to push policies designed to encourage conservation, especially of electricity. And these policies worked.

People in California have always used a bit less energy than other Americans because of the mild climate. But the difference has grown much larger since the 1970s. Today, the average Californian uses about a third less total energy than the average American, uses less than 60 percent as much electricity, and is responsible for emitting only about 55 percent as much carbon dioxide.

How did the state do it? In some cases conservation was mandated directly, through energy efficiency standards for appliances and rules governing new construction. Also, regulated power companies were given new incentives to promote conservation, via rule changes that “decoupled” their profits from the amount of electricity they sold.

And yes, a variety of state actions had the effect of raising energy prices. In the early 1970s, the price of electricity in California was close to the national average. Today, it’s about 50 percent higher.

Incidentally, since someone is bound to mention it: the California energy crisis of 2000-2001 has nothing to do with this story. That crisis was caused by market manipulation — we’ve got it on tape — made possible by ill-conceived deregulation, not conservation.

Back to California’s success. As the higher price of power indicates, conservation didn’t come free. Still, it’s striking how invisible California’s energy policy remains. It’s easy to see why New York has much lower per capita energy consumption than, say, Georgia: it’s a matter of high-rises versus sprawl, mass transit versus driving alone. It’s less obvious that Los Angeles is a much greener city than Atlanta. But it is.

So is California a role model for climate policy? No and yes. Even if America as a whole had matched California’s conservation efforts, we’d still be emitting about as much carbon dioxide now as we were in 1990. That’s too much.

But California’s experience shows that serious conservation is a lot less disruptive, imposes much less of a burden, than the skeptics would have it.
On the relative importance of research and development, from a CNN discussion across the table from Bjorn Lomborg:
But getting in place a system that gives people an incentive to reduce their emissions has got to be an important part of the set of precautions we're going to take. . .

Of course we do -- you know, of course we do research and development. Of course. And we do research and development in medical care, but we also try to provide incentives for people to actually do the right thing. And that's what the health care debate in the United States is all about. . .

If you say, well, you know, let's do research, that's mostly a way of postponing, when there's a lot of reasons to think that time may be running out. . .

The idea that we can sit here -- sit here in our respective studios -- and say, well, we ought to have the wise men in a big research project somewhere in Geneva, or something, figure out what the technology is going to be, and that's the only serious thing we should be doing, that we shouldn't be providing a schedule of gradually tightening caps on emissions, which will give people a market incentive to worry about it -- that's just bizarre.

And, you know, again, a lot of the things you can do. The McKenzie (sic) study, a lot of these studies do suggest that there's energy savings stuff that people would actually save money by doing, that they're not doing. I have enough sense that there are limits to rational behavior, that some of that is probably true.

But the main thing is, there are lots of low-cost, prosaic, ordinary stuff -- not high-tech -- painting your roof white, you know, using a -- driving a smaller car. All of these are things that, given an incentive, people will do. Why not give them that incentive?
So yes, I conclude that Krugman emphasizes energy conservation and de-emphasizes technological innovation. Even further, he explicitly favors the former over the latter in the CNN discussion. And that means that I think that he just doesn't understand the nature of the challenge.

Krugman defenders are invited to provide evidence to the contrary about his written or spoken views on conservation and innovation.