My First Week!

Hey everyone!

One of my favorite quotes is from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a physicist turned economist: “true ‘output’ of the economic process is not a material flow of waste, but a unique flux, the flux of enjoyment of life” (Georgescu-Roegen 1986, 8). As I approach and reflect on the one week mark of my internship at the Center for Carbon Removal, that quote kept popping up into my head, and I am still trying to unravel the parallels between what CCR does, and what that quote is saying.

My name is Jun Wong, a rising senior studying Economics here at Cal. My academic interests lie squarely in Ecological Economics—a blanket term for the study of energy, economics, and ecology. Outside of academics, I especially love cooking and tennis. I’ve already learned so much in a week, trying to absorb as much information as I can. Everyone is so friendly and personable, and I really appreciate the people and working environment. I feel right at home here at CCR, and hope to contribute as much as I possibly can to this organization and the conversation surrounding carbon removal as well.

One particularly interesting fact that came up in my research readings was that in none of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) modeling scenarios of limiting to a 1.5°C global warming excluded uses of carbon removal techniques. Furthermore, most of the 2°C waring scenarios included carbon removal techniques. In part inspired by a lack of initiative in this carbon removal sector and an obvious imperative, the center established a “New Carbon Economy Consortium,” that links up different research groups and universities to address the research gap surrounding the technical and socioeconomic circumstance around carbon removal techniques. The consortium is an active effort in furthering carbon removal technologies such as direct air capture, carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, among others. Armed with this consortium and its research findings, industry partners would implement these, and try our hardest to not kill this planet.

The Consortium to me, is fundamentally radical. The Consortium pushes the envelope in all directions: technically, economically, and socially. Georgescu-Roegen implies that a perceived output of the economic process is the “material flow of waste,” where we are blind to its “true ‘output’.” A new carbon economy turns that on its head. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has historically been “material waste.” In this new paradigm, the traditional “economic process,” is shifted, giving way to a cyclical and sustainable process. Then, Georgescu-Roegen’s distinction between what is “true” output will not matter, as the flux of the enjoyment of life decouples from material waste.

In my opinion, for the technical research done and applied by the New Carbon Economy Consortium to be widely adopted, social perceptions have to be changed for them to be economically viable. That is, consumer taste has to change for the demand (willingness to pay) to meet marginal cost. In macroeconomics, we describe a regime shift as a dramatic shift in policy. Per the case of the New Deal following the Great Depression and Abenomics in modern Japan, regime shifts have the potential to dramatically alter societal expectations and norms, followed by (arguably) more favorable economic performance. But how does the new carbon economy consortium fit into this?

I don’t believe there has been a point of regime shift yet, especially with current bans on words such as “climate change.” Grassroots efforts of changing societal perspective are important, and there are many organizations dedicated to exactly that. However, policy in the United States thus far have taken a largely passive stance on climate change, with only a few exceptions. The Paris Accord is a large step forward. I believe a widespread social acceptance of carbon removal technologies requires more dramatic policy shifts—regime shifts—than the Paris Accord was able to afford. Just as President Teddy Roosevelt vowed to raise inflation following the Great Depression and President Ronald Reagan vowed to halt inflation following the oil embargoes, our President has to vow to halt climate change.

Maybe we can think of the Consortium’s efforts and effects as not dependent on this regime shift, but a cause of the regime shift as well. The existence of the consortium itself is a radical shift in research agendas and traditional academic disciplines, and might well exert pressure on more radical policy shifts. In turn, these regime shifts enable the Consortium’s efforts and effects to be greater as well, since its potential is dependent on the social and economic acceptance of these novel technology and pathways.

A natural question to this is how radical, and to what end? I don’t know. But, I think if Georgescu-Roegen is correct in that the output of the economic process is the flux of the enjoyment of life, then we inherit the responsibility to conserve, and improve, this economic process as fellow participants to ensure the enjoyment of life for future generations.

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Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in Retrospect,” Eastern Economic Journal 12.1 (1986), 3-25.