The Economics of 350 – Why Decreasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels Is Smart Investing

Frank Ackerman, author of  Can We Afford the Future? Economics for a Warming World, is an economist specializing in climate change and a prominent critic of conventional economic approaches to climate policy and the abuses of cost-benefit analysis. He writes extensively for academic, policy and general audiences and has directed studies for clients ranging from Greenpeace to the European Parliament and U.S. federal and state agencies.

Mr. Ackerman recently wrote on Yale  Environment 360 about a group of economists that maintain that working towards the target of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is a smart investment — as well as the best insurance policy humanity could buy.

The following is excerpted from his column:

The climate change news from Washington is cautiously encouraging. No one in power is listening to the climate skeptics any more; the economic stimulus package included real money for clean energy; a bill capping U.S. carbon emissions emerged, battered but still standing, from the House of Representatives, and might even survive the Senate. This, along with stricter emission standards in Europe and a big push for clean energy and efficiency standards in China, provides grounds for hope for genuine progress on emissions reduction.

But while climate policy is finally moving forward, climate science is moving faster. One discovery after another suggests the world is warming faster, and climate damages are appearing sooner, than anyone had expected. Much of the policy discussion so far has been aimed at keeping the atmospheric concentration of CO2 below 450 parts per million (ppm) — which was until recently thought to be low enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming. But last year, James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, argued that paleoclimatic evidence shows 450 ppm is the threshold for transition to an ice-free earth. This would imply a catastrophic rise in sea levels, eventually flooding all coastal cities and regions.

To avoid reaching such a crisis stage, Hansen and a growing number of others now call for stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm. The world is now around 390 ppm and rising; since CO2 persists in the atmosphere for a long time, it is difficult to reduce concentrations quickly. In Hansen’s scenario, a phaseout of coal use, massive reforestation, and widespread use of carbon capture and storage could allow the world to achieve negative net carbon emissions by mid-century and reach 350 ppm by 2100.

Can we afford to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 350 ppm by the end of this century? To address this question, Economists for Equity and Environment ( — a group dedicated to applying and developing economic principles to protect human health and the environment — conducted a study of “The Economics of 350.” Click here to read the rest of Ackerman’s column at Yale Environment 360.

To see what the wonderful folks at are planning for 2010, view the video below.  In it, Bill McKibben discusses’s plans for 2010, and outlines why grassroots climate action is more important now than ever. Click here to read’s  “Getting to Work in 2010” plan.


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