Mark Jaccard Talks Climate Change

SFU economist and climate change expert Mark Jacquard on Earth Hour, energy-efficient light bulbs, and our capacity for self-delusion

March 2, 2010

By James Glave / Photo: Amanda Skuse

You characterize yourself as “a very mediocre economist.” How does a mediocre economist win the Nobel Peace Prize?
I was just one of hundreds who shared the prize for our collective work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I understand people and policy, and people and delusion, but I’m not a topnotch academic.

You understand delusion—what do you mean?
North America-wide polls reveal that most people think they are green consumers. There are so many books telling you how you can change your life and be green, but really the only way we can get there is by having laws and rules that prevent us from producing or emitting carbon.

Will carbon offsets help?
Quality research consistently shows that subsidies, like offsets, go significantly to “free-riders,” people and firms who get money for doing what they were going to do anyway. We must make things happen that were otherwise not going to happen and that require changes to prices (like a stronger carbon tax) and regulations (like building codes and vehicle standards) so that, for example, all homes get insulated. So when you think about buying an offset, I recommend instead sending your guilt money to organizations that are trying to change laws, like the Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, and PowerUp Canada.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
If we put in a climate policy and its hit on economic growth is greater than it could have been but it still reduces emissions, I don’t care that much. In that sense I’d call myself an environmentalist. Equity is also important to me. Early on I thought, “I want to be able to go toe-to-toe with the guys who influence the economy.” And when I look at where the devastation is going to hit the planet, it’s going to hit the poor—in Bangladesh, China, and so on. Cambridge economist Joan Robinson says that one learns economics so as not to be hoodwinked by economists. That’s why I’m an economist as well as an environmentalist. Environment trumps economic growth.

We can make fossil fuels more expensive to discourage their use, but the affluent are largely immune to pricing—and they’re often the highest carbon emitters. How do we get around that?
Price is a necessary—but not a sufficient—condition. We do know that if we don’t get prices adjusted, if it’s still free to pollute in the atmosphere, then the innovative human spirit will create new things that emit greenhouse gases. Wait till you go to your kids’ soccer game; somebody will have a portable propane heater to warm themselves on the sidelines. I’ve seen these things.
What do you say to the people running those personal propane heaters?
I don’t say anything. I want to get the price of carbon fixed! When the price of oil fell in the 1960s, we stopped building coal-fired electricity plants and started building oil-fired power plants. When the price of oil went up, we started building natural-gas plants. You’ve got to take care of price. Ironically, the B.C. Liberals’ so-called gas tax is designed so that low-income people benefit, but rising human income will inevitably lead to rising consumption. We need to regulate industry so that all the products it gives us are zero-emission products.

That’s a tall order.
It is, but we need to get to a global energy system that has zero emissions. Then there’s the bigger question of human wealth and its impact. Even if we create clean energy systems, we’ll still appropriate land and space, and continue to buy products. So I spend my time as a teacher focusing on how we might regulate humanity for closed-cycle systems, and how we can continually block off land so that humans are forced into high-density urban areas. Urbanization is good.

Bill Rees at UBC argues that our obsession with economic growth is killing us, and that humanity may be inherently unsustainable. Do you agree?
When people say that we have to stop economic growth, they never explain what the heck they mean. Most of them say gross domestic product has to stop growing. Well, GDP growth is the result of productivity innovation. Bill and I had a public debate over this. I put up a slide that shows old windmills and new windmills. I showed the kind of artificial limb that the U.S. army made for people at the end of World War II—useless—and then I showed a woman with this amazing prosthesis. That’s economic growth.

Whom do you admire?
Al Gore. People always take shots at him in such an unfair way. I don’t care how much energy he’s using in his house, he’s trying to change the laws.

We’ve been told that efficiency is good. But you’ve said that we’re being sold a line about the true cost of that efficiency. What do you mean?
I buy energy-efficient light bulbs. They’re $25 apiece. I brought one home and dropped it. If I had brought an incandescent bulb, I would have just lost 25 cents. Humans are very rational about spending money on big upfront expenditures. When I used to come back home from conferences, I’d find my wife had taken the energy-efficient bulbs out of the living room and the kitchen. I asked, “What’s going on?” and she’d say, “I hate them. The light is terrible.” The engineers and the energy-efficiency aficionados all say these are identical technologies in that they both provide 740 lumens, but they are not identical in the quality of service. To get the real difference in value between these two bulbs, I’d have to say to my wife, “How much do I have to compensate you to use these bulbs?” Then I’d know what the real value was. The people who do energy efficiency never do that calculation.

And even as we get more efficient, rising incomes come into play.
Right. We learned how to make condensers and refrigeration units, and that led to the expansion of water-cooler desktop fridges. I saw a mini-freezer at a conference the other day so that we could all have ice cream at the break.

Thus the phenomenon of the Energy Star-rated bathroom television. Exactly.

Will you be turning your lights off for Earth Hour this month?
My household electricity consumption is about 2,500 kw/h per year while a typical bill for a house that size is 13,000 kw/h. I have power bars everywhere; my kids turn them off. When they turn the TV on, they have to wait 30 seconds before they can change channels. They bought into all of that. A couple of years back, I was in Toronto for Earth Hour. Some people had been watching my house and wrote on a blog that all my lights were on for Earth Hour. My kids were home and having a party. I had people emailing me, saying I was a hypocrite. I wanted to write an article about thought control and Maoist China. Are we going to start watching each other? Is that really going to get us anywhere? I’m actually one of the few people who isn’t using a lot of electricity.

You’re on a project in China called the Task Force on Sustainable Coal?
Yes. The Chinese Council, which reports to the premier, has task forces on sustainability. I was asked to co-chair one of them. The other chair is the vice-chair of the coal industry in China. He said that China is going to be the climate-solutions leader. But he also said that his country is going to go from burning 2.7 billion tonnes of coal per year to 3.8 billion tonnes.

How does that square?
It doesn’t. I mentioned carbon capture and storage [CCS, a system of capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and piping it into underground rock formations] and they replied, “Well, that’s expensive.” So I said, “It looks like your coal use is going to need to go from 2.7 billion tones to 1.4 billion in order to meet those 2050 [carbon reduction] targets if you aren’t doing CCS. And there’s going to be the damage to your environment.”

Many environmentalists dismiss carbon capture and storage as science fiction. Isn’t it just a “big coal” stalling tactic?
All I know is that we are on a path to destroy the planet, and the more likely outcome—that we are going to shoot sulphates into the atmosphere, or that we are going to put up parabolic mirrors—is way more science-fiction than carbon capture and storage. When you’re trying to save the planet, you have to remember the degree of difficulty. [Jaccard gets out of his chair and holds his hand high overhead.] Here’s the degree of difficulty to get the Chinese to put in carbon capture and storage in their coal plants. Then ask yourself, what’s the degree of difficulty over the next three decades of getting them to stop using coal altogether? And that degree of difficulty would be [pointing skyward] somewhere in that cloud up there.

So carbon capture’s got to be in our toolbox then.
We should be going down that path to find out; we’ve already begun to. We have plants to capture carbon. The enviros and the skeptics all told me this was a new technology that you could never scale up, but we are already using it. My message is, “Don’t be arrogant.” How can one be so arrogant as to say, “This one’s ruled out”?

Arrogant is a word that’s sometimes mentioned when your name comes up in green policy circles.
Sadly, some people question your personality in the hope of undermining the research results you report. The truth is, it’s pretty difficult to be arrogant when you’re the perpetual butt of jokes for the four young adults who live with you.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.