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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Research: Climate Change Mitigation Cost Estimates

A new paper published in today’s Nature (subs. req’d) estimates costs to keep total man-made temperature rise below a set of thresholds (including 2°C).  This paper joins a long list of previous estimates, all of which are highly dependent on sets of assumptions.  The authors try to take uncertainties from four disciplines into account: geophysical, technological, social and political.  They state that “Our information on temperature risk and mitigation costs provides crucial information for policy-making, because it clarifies the relative importance of mitigation costs, energy demand and the timing of global action in reducing the risk of exceeding a global temperature increase of 2°C, or other limits such as 3°C or 1.5°C, across a wide range of scenarios.”  Given my recent push into the policy side of climate change, this paper provides a good example of something interesting and useful.

I will briefly state a central economic tenet: if you want to reduce how often an action takes place, the most direct way of doing so is to tax it.  Thus, if we want to minimize CO2 emissions, we should tax carbon at the source.  It is also obvious that the higher the cost of carbon, the lower carbon emissions will be within a set of real-world constraints.  What then should a carbon price be today that would work to keep global temperature rise above pre-industrial values below 2°C?  With a 50% probability, the authors estimate the 2012 price of carbon should be US$20 tCO2e−1 ($20 per ton of CO2-equivalent emission), as the following graph shows:

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You should ask yourself a question at this point.  If there was a 50% probability of arriving safely at a destination airport on an airplane, would you buy the ticket?  If there was a 1-in-2 chance of me not surviving that trip, there is no way I would buy that ticket.  But that’s me.  But let’s try to stay away from dire sounding language when talking about climate policy.  Yes, substantial changes would result from 2°C warming.   But most people and ecosystems would survive intact.  I mean only to illustrate what probability looks like for scenarios you or I might encounter.

What prices would generate higher probabilities?  A price of more than US$40 tCO2e−1 would achieve the 2°C objective with a probability exceeding 66% – much better odds for something we might think is a worthy goal.

It makes sense too that the graph shows an 80% probability of achieving a 2.5°C objective with a 2012 carbon price of US$20 tCO2e−1 and a >90% probability of achieving a 3°C objective at the same price.  We might not want to use 2.5°C or 3°C as our goal – that is our policy choice.  But probabilities increase for higher temperatures as well as higher carbon prices.  Our climate policies determine which of these two represents our actual goal.

The authors’ also state the following: “Yet, despite all of the uncertainty in the geophysical, social and technological aspects, our analysis indicates that the dominant factor affecting the likelihood and costs of achieving the 2°C objective is politics.  Only for low-energy-demand pathways can global mitigation action be delayed until 2020 and the 2°C objective still be achieved with a probability exceeding 66% (or delayed until 2030 with a 50% probability).”

Does anyone seriously believe that we can keep energy demand at turn-of-the-21st-century levels?  Developing nations want the same access to energy that developed nations have enjoyed for decades.  Demand will continue to rise throughout the 21st century.  Absent radical technological innovation (and continued political inaction), I find a 2°C target is already out of reach.  If carbon prices aren’t enacted in the next few years, it won’t matter very much what the price of carbon is afterwards, with respect to a 2°C target – the target will simply be unachievable.  Other targets will have to come into view.  Left unsaid in this discussion is whether a temperature value should even be our target.  There are other values that likely make more sense to more people in the world and should therefore be the central focus instead.


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Call for Climate Change-Policy Paradigm Shift

Nature Climate Change‘s most recent issue included a paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows entitled, “A new paradigm for climate change” [subs. req'd].   Kevin works at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering and Alice works at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering, University of Manchester.  The discussion and arguments in the paper aren’t exactly novel if you’ve paid attention to the policy side of the climate change topic but bears examination as much as other works on the climate-policy interface, in which I am very interested.

I think the paper has some serious flaws in its assumptions, which detracts from the policy prescriptions offered.  Prime among the flaws is this:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions

The latter part of this statement simply will not happen, barring additional severe economic distress.  The first part represents progress from the scientific community: developing nations want and deserve higher living standards, of which energy is a primary input.  But developed nations cannot and will not “immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions”.  There is a choice that these nations make every day: their own economies will grow and they will do so with the cheapest energy possible.

The U.S. recently achieved something through price signals that scientists and environmentalists have failed to achieve via policy for a generation: a significant reduction in overall CO2 emissions: 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.  This is after Congress failed to get a climate-energy bill passed in 2010.  Why did the decrease occur?  Because old coal-fired plants (the most polluting type) grew much more uneconomical to operate in the past few years compared to natural gas-fired plants.  There is a problem moving forward and that is there is nothing substantially cheaper than natural gas on the scale necessary to further reduce U.S. emissions.  Effectively, there is a new baseline from which the U.S. will operate for the next generation.  But natural gas, as most readers are familiar, still pollutes far more than renewable energy sources.  So U.S. emissions will continue to be quite high and more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere.

Despite the early flawed assumption, the papers’ authors quite correctly state the following:

[...]any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C [increase in average global temperatures] is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints.  Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low-carbon futures and underplaying high-emission scenarios.

I have written many times on the false hope that low- and moderate-emission pathways represent (given the unfortunate reality that our actual emissions are on a substantially different orientation) and lamented that even climate scientists misdirected their energies by rarely analyzing high-emission scenarios, thereby depriving policymakers with the required scope of potential futures from which we choose.

The authors do present this somewhat accurate portrayal:

At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.

Rather than demonizing neoclassical economics, the authors should look for opportunities within such a framework that would actually result in emissions reductions.  But the authors’ do identify issues that really do lie at the heart of climate policy: the values of contemporary society.  If those values were more robustly analyzed and respected for what they were as a foundation to climate policy, we would have made meaningful progress on the issue.

The lack of such effort is evident in one of the authors’ concluding paragraphs:

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

This thrown gauntlet is full of high-minded rhetoric but short on grasping the realities of the world.  I don’t know of any climate scientist who is afraid of making academic judgements.  But it is folly to accuse skeptics of unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice when advocates for climate activism also display their own set of opinions and prejudice – those opinion and prejudices arise through psychological lenses which themselves are rooted in biological constructs.  Insulting one another has done and will continue to not to anything to solve this problem.  Nobody has the “truth” market cornered.  The “new” paradigm championed by the authors bears remarkable resemblance to other recommendations from legions of climate activists before them.  What has such a stance accomplished?  Emissions continue to grow, concentrations continue to accumulate, temperatures continue to rise, etc.

Many of the same people who rail against unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice also vehemently dismiss new articulated paradigms.  I see nothing in this paper, or many others like it, that advocate for the rapid growth of developing economies based on 21st century technologies and innovations, even though such an effort is clearly needed while developed nations work at finding ways to decarbonize their own economies.  Quite simply, this is the least expensive path forward – it leverages opportunity within the economic framework in which we operate.  It strikes me as senseless to continue the same fight that has not achieved meaningful decarbonization in the last two generations.

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