A new paper published by the Institute for Science, Innovation & Society of the University of Oxford and the Mackinder Programme of the London School of Economics begins with the provocative thesis that the international climate change policy process, as embodied in the UNFCCC/Kyoto framework failed to result in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and that the Copenhagen meeting “crashed” the process. The path forward advocated by the authors focuses on incentivizing change by furthering the goal of “human dignity,” which the authors argue, will concomitantly help us to effectuate the kind of reductions in emissions that are essential to avoid serious climatic impacts. The contours of this “radical reframing” is the focus of the study.
Among the take-away messages of the study:
- Two momentous events occurred in 2009, the serious undermining of the credibility of the scientific consensus on climate change in the “Climate Gate” affair and the failure at Copenhagen, which the authors indicate reflect the limits of what can be achieved on climate change through centralising and hyperbolic multilateralism.” The authors contend that climate change cannot be addressed through a single, coherent, enforceable thing called “climate policy.”
- Energy policy and climate policy are not the same thing, though successfully pursuing energy policy that can provide access to the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth who do not currently have access to electricity, can also help us address climate change, because it necessarily requires a diversification of energy sources (because fossil fuel prices would rise if we tried to satisfy this need through more use of such fuels) which can move us to decarbonizing our economy. Effectuating this goal will require innovation;
- We currently pursue climate change policies with the idea that any co-benefits are secondary; we need to invert this thinking and seek to improve the quality of life, which in many cases can concomitantly help us reduce emissions. For example:
- Black carbon emissions result in 1.8 million deaths annually, while also contributing to 5-10% of total human forcing of the climate system, with particular implications for Arctic ice loss. One ton of black carbon causes about 600x the forcing one ton of carbon over a 100 year period. There are feasible ways to eradicate black carbon emissions, which would produce large public health benefits, especially in developing countries;
- Tropospheric ozone emissions exact serious health costs and diminution of agricultural productivity, while also contributing about 5-10% of human forcing of the climate system. Rigorous implementation of air quality standards can halve these emissions;
- Forests are not only a carbon sink but contribute substantially to livelihoods and biodiversity. Forest management need not be effectuated within a climate framework, but rather could be managed in a way that recognizes its integrated values;
- The UNFCCC/Kyoto framework relies upon a “pollution paradigm” which sought to apply the approach that was successful in other regimes, e.g. ozone and sulfur emissions. However, climate change is a fundamentally different issue; it is not an issue to be “solve,” but rather managed. It is also, the authors contend, not predominantly an “environmental” problem, but rather an energy, economic development, and land-use problem that might be better approached through these avenues;
- Climate change policy has been driven by the assumption that we have a consensus of values, and that solutions should thus be value-driven. In reality, the diverse political framings of the issue reveal themselves in different views of science itself;
- We should lead with policies that can “command the broadest assent and achieve the quickest results” to building political will; this does not mean to forego efforts to achieve decarbonization, but that should begin more slowly through research and development, demonstration and deployment through a low carbon tax;
- While climate science is more clouded that the positivistic view only propagated by its proponents, the very trend line of rising carbon dioxide emissions and other forcings in itself justify action to abate the rise even if we don’t know, indeed because we don’t know, fully the implications;
- Limiting the growth of energy demand to the extent necessary to achieve a reduction of GHG emissions associated with energy use by 50% seems highly unlikely; moreover, to achieve the reductions necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a very low level would require a near complete decarbonization of the energy supply. However, given the uncompetitive status of renewable energy sources vis-à-vis fossil fuels, we need to achieve an “energy technology revolution.” To effectuate this, several policies should be pursued:
- Much higher research and development funding by the public sector, given the unusually low levels of R&D expenditures by the private energy sector, and other barriers to private sector development, including high capital costs, low end-use product differentiation
- The lessons from Sweden and France, which have effectuated high levels of decarbonization, have both pushed innovation through R&D expenditures and standards setting, but have also “pulled” new energy technologies through their role as early adopters of such technologies;
8. As has been demonstrated in the context of the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme, countries have lacked the political will to antagonize constituents. This has resulted in inadequate carbon prices and questionable schemes e.g. carbon offset programs;
9. A better approach is to establish a hypothecated carbon tax with an emphasis on long-term energy transformation rather than on reducing emissions. Governments would also have an important “pull through” role as lead customers, which does not mean that they would pick winners among technologies beforehand.
This could be an excellent student reading, because it emphasizes a markedly different approach to addressing climate change, emphasizing the innovation-driven philosophy of the Breakthrough Institute.
Among the questions for class discussion could include the following:
- Does an emphasis on “human dignity” provide critical political support that currently doesn’t exist for climate change policy, and would it come from sources that currently resist addressing climate change?;
- Is a carbon tax, often considered a “third rail” of politics in many countries, more likely to prove viable if driven by an emphasis on energy innovation;
- Why is there likely to be less political resistance to address some of the non-carbon based sources of forcing, e.g. black carbon or air pollution given the fact that many of the major producers are concomitant major producers of carbo dioxide?