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Bjørn Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He is the founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which brings together some of the world's top economists, including 5[…]

We should be focusing on making solar panels, windmills and other green energy sources so cheap that everybody will want to buy them.

Question: Are there negative consequences for businesses that strive for sustainability? 

Bjørn Lomborg:  The obvious negative consequence for companies striving for sustainability is going to be it costs money. But much more so it's also if you end up investing in simple, politically correct, comfortable answers right now it may make you a lot of friends right now, but later on, when it becomes obvious that this was really cheap, that this was not effective, you might have a much bigger problem. So again, I would suggest that instead of doing just the easy, simple thing, let's actually look at where you get the most bang for the buck and do the thing that will do the most good in the long run. 

Question: Why is it a bad thing to focus on cutting carbon emissions?

Bjørn Lomborg:
If Co2 is the problem, it sounds like an obvious thing to cut the carbon emissions, but the problem is we don’t burn fossil fuels for fun. Fossil fuel is the backbone of our entire civilization. And so cutting it turns out to be very expensive and often almost impossible. So instead of asking people to do something that’s very expensive, or even impossible to do, namely cut carbon emissions, we should much rather be focusing on giving them different alternatives that are going to be long term, cheaper for them. 

So, instead of trying to price carbon so high that nobody wants it... that’s a politically self-defeating strategy, but also it’s never going to be accepted by the electorate. We should be much rather be focusing on making solar panels, windmills and all the other green energy so cheap that everybody will want to buy them. Incidentally, that also means that we don’t just conserve energy and switch to renewables in the rich world, where we might be able to afford it, but we can also get the Chinese and the Indians on board. 

Question: Would a global move to cut carbon emissions sacrifice prosperity? 

Bjørn Lomborg: Of course we should cut our carbon emissions to the right level. Economists have been looking at that and the answer is, the right level is somewhere between 5% and 10%, maybe 15% of carbon emissions. Weighing the cost of cutting extra versus the benefits of lower temperature rises in the future. Is this going to sacrifice our prosperity? No. But it is going to cost us, and so we've got to be careful. If we cut back too much we actually end up leaving the world less capable with dealing with all the problems of the world because it will have less riches, less infrastructure, less ability to tackle those problems compared to a world where we leave more of the global warming problem, but also many more resources to tackle that problem.

Question: How should we invest in climate engineering? 

Bjørn Lomborg: We actually emphasize we should invest in research and development of geo-engineering because we want to know whether it works. But absolutely geo-engineering is something we should take into account, for instance, marine cloud whitening is a very promising approach that makes the oceanic clouds just a tiny bit whiter by putting up sea salt into the atmosphere. It simply amplifies the natural process. That means there’s a few more particulates around which the clouds can condense. That makes them whiter, it reflects more sunlight and it cools off the planet. It actually turns out that for $7 billion in total, we could entirely eradicate the temperature rise of the 21st century. Now, that’s about 1,000 or 2,000 times cheaper than anything else we’re talking about. 

So, obviously we want to look at it, but we also need to first look at, is it going to cause other problems? Is there some undiscovered problems that we need to know about? That’s why we should focus first on research and development and then potentially as a way to postpone the problems to give us more breathing space, to transition to clean energy, we should invest in some of the geo-engineering. 

Question: What is a feasible project? 

Bjørn Lomborg: In principle, marine cloud whitening is a very feasible project. It would take about 2,000 ships, unmanned to go around mostly in the South Pacific, spray up sea salt into the atmosphere. It would have absolutely no impact in people’s lives, although we do need to look at whether it would have impact on precipitation patterns, possibly on the monsoons. That’s one of the reasons why we need to invest in research and development first. And it would have a very, very tiny, effect on our economy. Contrary to cutting carbon emissions, it would cost very little, on the order of less than a billion dollars a year for the entire planet.

Recorded on May 6, 2010