Having a viable substitute for something you want to change is important. I didn’t quit smoking until I found nicotine gum. That was despite a very clear understanding of what smoking was doing to me and those around me.
Ten coal plants are being retired from service, it was recently announced, bringing the number of such retirements to 106–coal plants in the U.S. that have shut up shop or are planning to do so.
A variety of reasons are given for these closures–rising costs of coal, new and stiffer regulations by the EPA–but the fact is that these closures are possible because of the availability of low cost natural gas. When a substitute becomes available, it changes the way decisions are made.
Roger Pielke Jr. has a post up over at his eponymous weblog about the cost of gas at the pump expressed as a proportion of GDP. He notes that a 70% rise in the cost of gas at the pump has only pushed spending on gasoline from 2.8% to 3.8% of our GDP. Pielke speculates that the calculus on gasoline changed when China began consuming a lot of it, and he’s probably right.
But I would submit that rising gas prices (and I think they will probably continue to rise–the developing world will bid up the price) will not have as much of an effect on richer countries as it has in the past. This is because substitutes are more easily available and more societally acceptable. By that I mean that some dude in a nice suit trying to show his status can now do so with a Prius or a Tesla–he doesn’t have to show up in a Hummer. Soccer moms can send similar signals about awareness, status and preparedness without a 4 x 4. At the less rarified atmospheric levels of the middle class, we now can buy good cars with conventional engines that get good mileage–and they look cool, or at least a lot of them do.
Gasoline prices will continue to rise–but they won’t have the same effect. That’s a good thing. Fewer dirty coal plants and more natural gas–also a good thing. But note that the key part of making good things possible is having the money, time and technology to make choices available and to send the signals about which choices advance a (greener) way of looking at the world. We are slowly beginning a move towards a European view of energy. That’s fine, especially when it’s a matter of choice, right? But we can’t kid ourselves–this is really happening because we’re the richest country on Earth. If we want this migration to go viral, we’re going to have to help the developing world get richer first.