Stopping Climate Change Is Much Cheaper Than You Think

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CarbonQuilt/Flickr

You've heard it before: politicians say they'd love to take action against climate change, but they're reeling from sticker shock. Today, a new report from the UK's leading climate change watchdog refutes this oft-cited argument that climate action will herald economic Armageddon.

The Committee on Climate Change report, with the hairy-sounding title "Statutory Advice on Inclusion of International Aviation and Shipping," says that in 2050, the UK's emissions reductions across the whole economy will cost 1-2 percent of the total GDP. This updates, in greater detail, the range predicted half a decade ago by the watershed Stern Review.

Just how much is that? For a rough comparison, one percent of the UK's 2011 GDP is a little more than what the country currently spends on public housing and community amenities, and is no where near the big ticket public spending items like healthcare. The UK has enshrined in law an emissions reduction of 80 percent on 1990 levels by 2050.

"It's a very compelling economic case to act," says David Kennedy, CEO of the CCC, an independent statutory body charged with advising parliament on all things climate. "You don't need radical behavior and lifestyle change to achieve our climate objectives." "It's a very, very small impact on growth. And what you get for that is a whole range of economic benefits."

This table from the report details the cost in 2050 of meeting emissions reductions in a few different scenarios, including if fuel prices are high or low:

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The Committee on Climate Change (UK)

The report says that cost is not an impediment, even when factoring into the mix international aviation and shipping, two sectors that have previously been left out of the UK government's carbon budgets.

Cost is a familiar argument against climate action for US readers. As president, George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, calling it a job killer that placed unfair economic burdens on the US while letting poorer countries off the hook. And in Congress, the ill-fated cap-and-trade bill of 2009 fell victim, in part, to arguments that consumers would foot the bill by paying more for electricity. The Heritage Foundation said cap-and-trade could raise the average family's annual energy bill by $1,241. House Republicans called it "a light switch tax that would cost every American household $3,128 a year," a statement that has been widely disputed.

But Kennedy says talk of economic meltdown is wrong. "They talk about the economy being closed down, about an 'end to growth'. Well, that is frankly nonsense, and the debate should be around the correct number."

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration between The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate, and others, dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. Learn more at theclimatedesk.org.

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