John Rapley is a political economist at the University of Cambridge and the author of Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong.
In my college days, I had a friend who could polish off a dozen doughnuts at a go. Afterward, he’d order a Diet Coke, whereupon the counter attendant invariably told him he was wasting his time; the caloric damage had already been done.
Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a bombshell report that declared “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, human influence on the climate system is clear, and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” The report comes at a time when governments are making bold pledges to create sustainable growth, investors are pushing firms to phase out fossil fuels, and some consumers are rushing to substitute “green” products such as electrical vehicles for the dirty old technology.
Unfortunately, most of this amounts to the climate equivalent of capping a 3,000-calorie binge with a diet drink. That humble soda reveals why technology can’t save us from a system overload. The creation of artificial sweeteners improved the efficiency of flavouring, allowing us to produce more or less the same taste but with fewer calories. Electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla do the same thing for car engines: same energy, less carbon.
Even before the invention of electric vehicles, automobile...
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