The Pollin Plan for Addressing Climate Change

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Tompkins Weekly 7-11-16

By Richard W. Franke

In the May 2 edition of Tompkins Weekly, I introduced the background and context of economist Robert Pollin’s plan for meeting the 2035 goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to reduce anthropogenic (human-induced) CO2 emissions by 40 percent below current levels—from 33 billion tons to 20 billion tons.

This plan is outlined in Pollin’s 2015 book “Greening the Global Economy,” published by MIT Press. His plan fits well into the Paris agreement of December 2015 with one major caution: he requires that world investment in energy efficiency and clean renewables increase immediately to about three times its current level.

Pollin then proposes that, over the next 20 years, world economies invest annually about $1 trillion for clean renewables and $500 billion for energy efficiency—more efficient new buildings and transportation and retrofitting of the old. As global populations and economies grow, these investments would grow proportionally. Assuming a three-year delay in the widespread application of technological innovations, Pollin counts only the last 17 years of installed improvements over the 20-year period of the estimates—the first three years of the ensuing period from 2035-50 would reap the leftover gains. Note: for Pollin the term “clean renewables” does not include nuclear power or natural gas.

These investments would alter the energy production and consumption patterns that are currently measured in Quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) or Q-BTUs. One BTU is about the amount of heat released with the burning of a wooden kitchen match; one Q-BTU equals about 61 million round trips by car from New York City to Los Angeles.

Investments of this size over the 20-year period (counting only the last 17 years) would result in several positive outcomes:

Investments in energy efficiency would total $9.3 trillion and would save, or prevent the use of, 310 Q-BTUs, with total consumption dropping from the projected 754 Q-BTUs in the “business as usual” (BAU) estimate for 2035 to 444 Q-BTUs instead.

Investments in clean renewables would total $18.7 trillion and would generate 93.5 Q-BTUs to replace current fossil fuel burning and to keep up with the energy needs of a growing world population and enhancements in the quality of life of all—that is, 93.5 on top of the 40 Q-BTUs currently in the clean renewables energy sector, mostly hydropower.

Nuclear power generated energy would drop from 40 to 25 Q-BTUs.

Anthropogenic (human-induced) CO2 emissions would decline from the 45 billion tons predicted for the year 2035 in the BAU estimate to 20 billion tons; that is, they would hit the IPCC target for that year.

World average per capita CO2 emissions in 2035 would be about 2.3 tons instead of 4.9 tons (currently at 4.6 tons).

Per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. in 2035 would fall to 5.8 tons from 14.4 tons (currently at 16.7 tons).

Contrary to the image sometimes held by others, including climate activists, Pollin argues that investments on these scales will lead to greater, not less employment. Applying common job estimate procedures used by economists, he finds that for each $1 million invested in clean energy in the U.S., 8.7 jobs are created. For investments in fossil fuels, the figure is 3.7 jobs. Scaling those figures up to the national level, over the 20 years of the plan, there would be an increase of 2.7 million jobs, even after figuring in the jobs that will be lost in the fossil fuel industry.

One reason for this is that building new infrastructure tends to create jobs in carpentry, sheet metal work, trucking and other generally good paying jobs. Recall that in this initial 20-year period, much of the investment with the highest immediate returns is in energy efficiency and much of the investment in efficiency involves retrofitting buildings, which also tends to generate construction-related employment.

To read more about Pollin’s employment research, go to, or google “Pollin plan jobs.”

The current U.S. energy sector is not moving in the direction recommended in the Pollin Plan. According to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, natural gas now accounts for 33 percent of U.S. electricity generation, passing coal this year by one percentage point.

In 1990 natural gas comprised just under 10 percent of electricity generation for the country as a whole. Renewables remain at 8 percent, most of it hydropower that has been online for some time. Of all marketed natural gas in 2015, 67 percent was derived via hydrofracking. And, despite a recent massive drop in fossil fuel prices including natural gas, The New York Times of in May reported that energy company executives are preparing for a renewed gas boom following the lengthy drop in prices that may have bottomed out at about $25 per barrel.

Recent price recovery to $44 per barrel has executives discussing reopening well shafts and drilling new ones if the price goes above $50. The stubborn corporate and market fixation on narrow immediate cost-benefit and profit calculations reminds us of the continued importance of the political struggles against fracking and pipelines in our area, and the importance of the We Are Seneca Lake campaign to block the creation of a gas-based infrastructure in the Southern Tier.

The Pollin plan constitutes a desirable alternative that our protest movements could make possible.

Richard W. Franke writes about the history of sustainability. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at Montclair State University, a resident of EcoVillage at Ithaca and a board member and treasurer of Sustainable Tompkins.


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