Amartya Sen on growth and climate | Brussels Blog

Amartya Sen on growth and climate

posted by on 7th Sep 2015

A misunderstanding?

At a lecture in June at the York Festival of Ideas, the chair did her best to shut me up but to his credit Aramatya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, let me continue – for a bit. I suspect that most of the audience were in awe of Professor Sen. Me too. However, he either misunderstood my question or dodged it. As I remember, I asked:

“Professor Sen, how can you believe that democracy works? Climate change is the most important issue for us now, we may be facing another mass extinction of life on Earth, yet hardly anybody here will even know what the ‘remaining carbon budget’ means. How can democracy work when there is such ignorance.”

Professor Sen answered “I don’t believe in budgetary approaches, taxation is much better.” I can’t remember exactly what happened next but I do remember shouting “You made a semantic shift” as a last (rather sad) throw.

The semantic shift was this: The IPCC’s “remaining carbon budget” is a concept referring to the physical capacity of the atmosphere to accept greenhouse gas emissions before we hit dangerous climate change. Sen’s reference to taxation rather than a “budgetary approach” referred to economic mechanisms. Was this semantic shift deliberate?

Austerity, growth, public expenditure and democracy

In his speech Sen argued for economic growth against austerity. He made similar points in an article for the New Statesman, The economic consequences of austerity,

“even if we want to reduce public debt quickly, austerity is not a particularly effective way of achieving this… For that, we need economic growth; and austerity, as Keynes noted, is essentially anti-growth.”

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Note on Nuclear Power to Mike Weightman (2011)

posted by on 4th Sep 2015

This is a note I sent to Dr Mike Weightman in 2011. He was then Chief Inspector of nuclear installations and head of the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

He was reporting on the safety of nuclear power after the accident at Fukushima.

Are there additional concerns on the safety of nuclear power?

Dear Dr Weightman,

I understand that you are conducting a review on the safety of nuclear power plants following the recent events in Japan.

I have consulted the following: “Review of medium to long term coastal risks associated with British Energy sites: Climate Change Effects – Final Report, by Mark L Gallani, Met Office 22 February 2007. I make the following comments:

Missing climate feedbacks

The report relies on the HadRM3 Regional Climate Model. This may underestimate or omit the effects of certain climate feedbacks which are mentioned on the NERC website:

- reduced sea ice cover – reflecting less of the sun’s heat back out to space, changing ocean circulation patterns
– less carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans
– increased soil respiration
– more forest fires
– melting permafrost
– increased decomposition of wetlands

Increased possibility of tsunamis

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The job apocalypse and climate change

posted by on 1st Sep 2015

The robot job apocalypse?

BBC Word Service has recently updated Robert Owen’s worries on the decline of labour as a factor of production. This time the concern is a new form of industrialisation: artificial intelligence. The programme, What Will Happen When Robots Take Our Jobs? has the introduction:

“Blue-collar jobs in industries like manufacturing have been disappearing for years but now white-collar work is under threat too. Machines are already taking roles that used to be done by journalists, lawyers and even anaesthetists. One recent study calculated that 47% of total employment in the US is at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

So what will happen to all the human beings who did those jobs? … And how will they earn money?”

The most powerful computer in the world

My first job was as a computer programmer in 1967 on the most powerful computer in the world, the Atlas Computer. It was a time when computer programmers were young and held in awe. Computer operators were mostly glamorous young women. The computer occupied the ground floors and basements of two large terraced houses in Gordon Square near University College. On hot days we went to the observation bay to take advantage of the air conditioning and watch the film set of magnetic tape drives starting, stopping, spinning rapidly and being changed by glamorous people. It was always sunny.

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Reducing the cost of labour to create full employment (1978)

posted by on 29th Aug 2015

This was published in the Computer Weekly in 1978. Key point:

“technological change can bring about conditions under which
a large proportion of the population cannot live by the sale
of their labour alone, and they should not be expected to do so.”

Headings have been added.

BEFORE discussing the details of the different methods for reducing the cost of labour to create full employment as discussed in your correspondence columns, it is worth pointing out that the general principle behind such policies has not yet been given sufficient consideration. For example, no such policy was considered by Barrie Sherman (Futureview, February 23) even in the form that Keynes proposed: reducing real wages by creating inflation.

No to the Keynesian solution

Naturally, I would have been shocked if Barrie Sherman had suggested a further dose of the Keynesian solution with the lowering of workers‘ standard of living at a time when technological change is making large increases in real wealth possible. It does need to be appreciated, however, that the present phase of technological change is likely to bring a fall in the real value of labour, just as happened in the first industrial revolution.

This point was well understood at that time by Robert Owen and well expressed by his son:

“Will any man who stands on his reputation for sanity affirm that thenecessary result of over production is famine: that because labour produces more than even luxury can waste. labour shall not have bread to eat? If we can imagine a point at which all the necessaries and comforts of life shall be produced without human labour. are we to suppose that the human labourer is then to be dismissed to be told that he is now a useless encumbrance which they cannot afford to hire.”

To me the message is simple: technological change can bring about conditions under which a large proportion of the population cannot live by the sale of their labour alone, and they should not be expected to do so.

Labour subsidies instead of the dole queue

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Will low paid workers pay the price for saving the planet?

posted by on 24th Aug 2015

Job losses reversed by economic growth

In the 19th century Robert Owen predicted unemployment and a decline in the value of labour due to industrialisation

“If we can imagine a point at which all the necessaries and comforts of life shall be produced without human labour, are we to suppose that the human labourer is then to be dismissed to be told that he is now a useless incumberance which they cannot afford to hire.”

What Robert Owen did not foresee is the increased demand for the “comforts of life”. This increased demand has generated extra production and extra jobs. In modern terms economic growth has created jobs.

For developing countries, the World Bank’s advice is to industrialise and end extreme poverty by “sustaining high rates of economic growth”. In developed Europe, the European Commission recommends more industrialisation for growth and jobs :

“Europe needs its real economy now more than ever to underpin the recovery of economic growth and jobs and it needs to re-industrialise for the 21st century.”

Economic growth can replace jobs lost to industrialisation. It can relieve poverty. However, there have been periods when the job destroying effects of industrialisation have caused unemployment and poverty. In the words of the Economist magazine

“The great inventions of the 19th century, from electric power to the internal-combustion engine, transformed the human condition. Yet for workers who lived through the upheaval, the experience of industrialisation was harsh: full of hard toil in crowded, disease-ridden cities.”

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A minimum wage is bad for the planet

posted by on 10th Aug 2015

Could giving everyone an equal carbon dividend
support a low waged economy
with a happier less polluting work force?

Carbon Fee and Dividend

In a previous post “Stop growth, redistribute wealth and try to save the planet” the idea of green redistribution is described:

One possible scheme to avoid dangerous climate change is this: Levy a high tax on carbon emissions and share the proceeds equally. To avoid dangerous climate change, the tax will need to be high enough to substantially reduce carbon emissionsn. Howevver, this will cause a fall in production and consumption.
Compared to the poor, the rich and affluent cause more carbon emissions simply because they consume more. Their share of the proceeds would not cover their increased taxes. For the poor, who have lower emissions there would be a net gain. Ther is therefore a redistribution from the rich and affluent to the poor. The post World Wide Carbon Fee and Dividend describes such a scheme.
It is not Green Growth but it is Green Redistribution.

To avoid dangerous climate change, the tax will need to be high enough to substantially reduce carbon emissions. This will cause a fall in production and consequent consumption.  Applied to nations this becomes James Hansen’s Carbon Fee & Dividend. The key point here is that everybody has a basic income from their carbon dividend.

The minimum wage

All political parties in the UK support a minimum or living wage, although the Liberal Democrats have expressed some caution about its effects on employment:

Liberal Democrats will ask the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage as the economy grows without damaging employment opportunities.

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Research into Housing and Housing Service Systems (1973)

posted by on 7th Aug 2015

A proposal from the past (1973)


For some time now I have thought that housing and associated service systems were, as a whole, much neglected and have been frustrated at the thought that there was little chance of many good ideas for improving housing ever getting put into practice.

There seemed to be many ideas that were talked about but nothing much beyond that. Meeting others that felt the same and had the will to do something about it (mainly Norman Fellows and Heimir Salt) and given the opportunity to do some research into housing this year I was prompted to start writing what follows which is meant to explain our objectives.

One of the first things we did was to approach Bob Jefferies of the Dept of Town Planning and discuss it with him. He has given much valuable critical comment and has made us see the significance of what we want to do and put it in its context.

With limited resources it is unlikely that we ourselves shall achieve much but at least we can hope to influence thinking on the subject so that others may be able to.


Although there is a general awareness that there are radical changes occurring in our society, (and it is not clear whether these are really social economic, political or ecological) and although there are many professionals and academics saying that to cope with these changes interdisciplinary barriers must be broken down, these barriers seem as high as ever.

continue reading… (2008)

posted by on 7th Aug 2015

This post was the contents of

(now retired)


Renewal Cities are developments that use the wealth they create to sponsor grand and worthwhile projects.

Our first scheme – a city in North Kent.

The Hoo Peninsular Renewal City will be a modern carbon negative city where people from varying walks of life will want to live. Its predicted population is 250,000. This is much larger than any of the proposed ecotowns. As well developing carbon negative lifestyles, some of the wealth created by this development will finance carbon capture and storage at the neighbouring Kingsnorth power station. The city will be funded using the value inherent in planning permission.

The value of planning permission

Development creates value. In Britain, a large proportion of this value can be recognised as the value of planning permission. The values of land is greatly increased when planning permission changes agricultural land into building land. The difference is the value of the planning permission. A typical figure for the planning permission value of a house is £100,000.

3 million new homes – £300 billion to spend

The UK government is planning 3 million new homes. A reasonable estimate of the planning permission value of these homes is £300 billion. With the correct mechanisms in place this can be captured for good causes. One advantage of using planning permission value is that the source of the value is opaque – it needs a good understanding of the economics to see how the value is created.

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The carbon cost of achieving low carbon lifestyles

posted by on 5th Aug 2015

The transition to low carbon, “modern” lifestyles
may break existing carbon budgets.

Carbon Brief reports: the remaining carbon budget to give a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C is 243 billion tonnes. That means, if humanity emits another 243 billion tonnes of CO2e, global temperatures will rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Using the same calculations, the remaining carbon budget, to keep below 2°C is 843 billion tonnes.

An earlier piece, “Is Green Growth a Fantasy?“, explained how this was converted to personal carbon budgets:

“World population was estimated recently at 7,317,801,293 by Worldometers. Dividing the remaining carbon budgets by the world’s population gives 33 tonnes of CO2e for a 1.5°C rise. For a 2°C rise this calculates as 115 tonnes per person.”

Is Green Growth a Fantasy? also made the assumption that this budget should last until it is possible to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a mass scale. It assumed this could start in 2050. Relying on carbon extraction maybe risky, but, according to the IPCC (and now others), there is little choice.

The report, Zero Carbon Britain,  (ZCB) from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) examines carbon reduction targets to avoid dangerous climate change

“Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) scenario demonstrates that we could rapidly reduce UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2030, using only currently available technology.”

“We can do this whilst maintaining a modern standard of living.”

ZCB envisages some changes to lifestyles: Less travelling, a changed diet but at the same time maintaining “a modern standard of living”.

The embodied carbon in low carbon infrastructure

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Stop growth, redistribute wealth and try to save the planet

posted by on 22nd Jul 2015

Stop growth, redistribute wealth and try to save the planet

Consume less or consume more?

A previous piece, A green recession and full employment, starts

To save the world from climate catastrophe we need a recession because we have to cut consumption that pollutes. We need a “green recession“.

In the section, On the need to decrease economic growth in the Encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis says

given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even re- tracing our steps before it is too late.

re- tracing our steps before it is too late” means reverting to previous less polluting lifestyles and reducing consumption. Less consumption would mean a recession.

However, the World Bank advocates more consumption. In End extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity, it says

[To end extreme poverty] will require sustaining high rates of economic growth across the developing world, as well as translating growth more effectively into poverty reduction in each developing country.

Ending poverty

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