The costs of the status quo keep rising; the costs of sustainable alternatives keep declining.
By David Roberts
$26 trillion by 2030.
That, according to the most authoritative research to date, is the amount of money humanity could save through a global shift to sustainable development.
It’s a lot of money. Before you break your brain trying to imagine it, just pause to make a note that it’s a positive sum (uh, extremely positive), not negative. Net savings, not costs.
That might come as a surprise since decades of conservative and fossil fuel propaganda have made it conventional wisdom that cleaning up our act is expensive — that it costs more than the status quo. It is the argument hauled out against every single pollution regulation.
The argument has always been false on a sufficiently long time scale. Sooner or later, humanity must live sustainably or it won’t go on living — that’s what “sustainable” means. And any fundamental shift toward sustainability is enjoyed by all subsequent generations of humans, so, y’know, the value compounds. If there are any people left in the year 5000, the question of whether it was “worth it” to shift to sustainable practices will strike them as peculiar indeed.
But there were ways to make the shift look expensive in the short to mid-term, especially since the prices of the fuel, food, and materials we use do not reflect their environmental damage. And traditional modeling and cost-benefit analysis have always been weighted in favor of the status quo, since the costs of new, more sustainable systems are apparent and their second- and third-order benefits are difficult to predict or quantify. (Innovation is the X-factor in all modeling.)
But these days, it has gotten almost impossible to make sustainability look like a bad deal. Two forces are acting as a pincer, making the decision more and more obvious.
First, the future damages of climate change are coming into clearer focus, and, more to the point, the damages have arrived, here in the present, in brutal fashion.