by Jo Abbess
19 February 2010
A number of prevalent ideological frameworks employed for constructing policy to address Global Warming appear to have faulty foundational analysis and are therefore ineffective in addressing Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Politically implementable options that could lead to effective action to combat Climate Change are being kicked into the long grass at every turn, in policy, in investment and in society.
Reasonable proposals are being made over-complex to implement, or delayed by every means possible. The dominant memes of economics hinder good decision-making; for example, not all natural capital can be valued as a commodity, and yet Carbon markets and Carbon tax regimes are the most ubiquitous proposals.
The cheapest options for efficiency are overlooked for subsidy-attracting large-scale projects; and wholescale sustainability approaches are being discarded in favour of focus on obsessional marginal issues such as recycling.
The imperative to deliberately orient investment towards Low Carbon energy is lost in the haze of planning based on non-solutions such as the renaissance of Nuclear Power and Carbon Capture and Storage in the pursuit of so-called “Clean” Coal.
Blue Sky Thinking
The essential elements of a global deal, as considered by such economists as Nicholas Stern could be described as dangerous wishful thinking.
The 2009 UNFCCC Copenhagen Accord stated as its first goal to keep global temperatures within a rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet such a target is useless without the means to satisfy it. A global treaty means nothing without a mechanism to make it happen.
The situation is dire : the Earth has already warmed up by around 0.8 degrees Celsius, and even if net emissions stopped tomorrow we are still committed to a further 0.6 degrees Celsius or so rise, because of the time lag in the Earth system reaching a new equilibrium (Reference : Hansen et al. 2004).
Research raises the possibility that the current level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is already the highest that could be consdered safe, or may in fact be too high. This implies that the Carbon Budget for a safe Climate is effectively zero, which means that any emissions must result in zero increase in atmospheric accumulation.
Net emissions to air we make from this point on could throw us over the 2 degrees Celsius threshold before 2050. If the sensitivity of the Climate is higher than we have so far calculated, then 2 degrees Celsius could be reached significantly sooner. This makes the goal of 2 degrees Celsius, or any concentration target, such as 550 ppmCO2e, invalid.
The goal should be Zero Net Emissions as soon as possible. At a very minimum, the goal should have a milestone of no further annual increase in Net Carbon Dioxide Emissions to Air. Keeping the 2 degrees Celsius target in the global agreement just builds in delay, because of the inevitable arguing about Climate sensitivity and responsibilities for cutting back emissions.
It is up to all of us to adopt the responsibility of cutting emissions, from now on : there can be no exceptions. That’s all countries, all sectors, whether they’re explicitly party to the global deal or not.
There must be a general admission that we are already experiencing dangerous Climate Change and make serious national commitments.
We do need to stop being dictated to by economists, who acted as an elite at the UNFCCC Copenhagen Climate Talks to elbow out the demands of the AOSIS for a long-term target of 350 ppm.
It can be reasonably argued that we already have dangerous Climate Change. Just look at the Arctic. If we peak and sharply reduce net anthropogenic emissions, then the net accumulation in the atmosphere will reduce over time, and we could encourage that with a- and re-forestation, and some (gulp) geoengineering if that can be made to work.
In addition, it’s hard to get people to sign up to 2 degrees C, 350.org or 1.5 degrees C, because there just doesn’t seem a way to get the necessary actions done to get that goal/target. Nobody has any clue at the top of the decision-making stack about how to get any targets implemented.
The engineers could save the world, but they have no communications skills.
We need a permanent session of the UNFCCC to get some traction on this problem, not yearly press fests.
Research & Development
Although it is absolutely vital to conduct research into Climate Change, directing most financial resources into Reearch and Development could be said to be a symptom of a wider inability to commit to action on Carbon Dioxide emissions.
As for technology, ploughing continued revenue into Renewable Energy research won’t uncover a magical solution – we do need to go with what we currently have and start de-Carbonisation with the Energy technologies already proven. We don’t have time to wait another 30 – 50 years for the eventual possible development of Nuclear Fusion, for example, if the already present effects of Climate Change continue to aggravate Earth life support systems.
We are being sidetracked from building the new Renewable Energy infrastructure by the well-funded lobbying factions of Fossil Fuel corporates and failed technologies supported by mining interests such as Coal and Nuclear Fission.
We are being sidetracked from Energy Demand Reduction by a number of ruses. Those who would be entrusted with investment in the requisite new energy infrastructure (Big Energy supply companies) are obviously more interested in big ticket, fat subsidy projects, constructing new plant; and very uninterested in low cost domestic insulation programmes. Big Energy is interested in the profits to be made on selling more Energy, not the one-time sales to be made from selling insulation. Although there are moves to change this with the introduction of the ESCos (Energy Services Companies) concept, there is still an implied profit-squeeze in concentrating on negawatts than megawatts.
The obsession for high quality buildings and services in public life coupled with the continual cost-cutting of construction companies leads to wonderful looking buildings with appalling Energy peformance. Also, the Health and Safety forces that exist don’t yet take into consideration the overheating of modern buildings in their risk assessments of infrastructure.
Energy is generally too cheap in monetary terms compared to other products, and so its use is profligate, especially in public and corporate environments. However, charging more for Energy would result in inflationary forces felt by citizen-consumers rather than corporates or public sector facilities management, so there will remain a tendency to waste.
Energy Conservation is the bad fairy at the christening and rarely gets discussed (Reference : MacKay).
The Notion of Carbon Pricing
There is no particular reason why pricing Carbon would create an incentive to de-Carbonise.
There has already been strong consideration of balancing Carbon taxation with a relaxation in income taxation, which would make Carbon a little more expensive, but the tax-freer income would expand Carbon consumption.
Carbon-based Energy is the most dominant form of Energy in the global economy, and the economy is highly dependent on Energy. If Carbon pricing were implemented, either through a Cap-and-Traded market, with or without a floor price, flat taxation or otherwise, the economy would experience inflationary pressure, and pretty soon, everything would become more expensive, and the relative cost of Carbon would return to its low levels as at present.
The current sub-global implementation of a Carbon market has given high volumes of trade, but has not significantly reduced overall Carbon consumption – a very inefficient way to control Carbon.
Despite numerous parties talking up the concept of an imminent Carbon pricing policy, globally this market framework has not matured, and probably won’t. It won’t take more than a niche slice of the overall marketplace.
Plus, there will remain strong influences to keep the price of Fossil Fuels relatively low, whether or not there is a Carbon price, as a stable economy is worth so much (Reference : international diplomatic mission by Gordon Brown during the oil price spike of 2008).
The Petroleum Oil market in particular is not a free market, and it does not conform to the laws of supply and demand. Therefore it is not surprising that prices can and are always managed.
There are also problems with “who pays”. Carbon pricing allow the price for the externalities of Carbon Dioxide and Methane Emissions to be passed on to the final consumer in the global supply chain. It’s not the polluter who will pay.
Also, there are problems with any proposal for a piecemeal implementation of Carbon pricing – one of which being the inherent cross-border issues, where Carbon has a different price on either side of a trading border, distorting global trading arrangements, leading potentially to dirty manufacture located in regions where there is no Carbon pricing (“Carbon leakage”). If the Carbon market is not universal, then leakage will be a serious drawback.
To add to the problems, the speed of implementation of a global Carbon market is likely to be slow. Some of the large Energy companies profess support for pricing Carbon in a capped market, or Carbon taxation, but they know how long such a regime could take to implement, and it has to be in their best interest to throw policy action as far into the future as possible to protect their business profits now.
These obvious flaws in the proposals to price Carbon seem to have been ignored – Carbon pricing is still fairly universally pushed as an ideology, and the IPCC reports take Carbon pricing as a virtual given.
The whole IPCC negotiation process is infected with proposals for various forms of Carbon pricing – whenever someone boldy suggests that de-Carbonisation should be incentivised by scarcity in Carbon Credits, somebody else tries to put a monetary figure on that. But paying for Carbon has the deleterious impact that those who are subject to Carbon pricing lose the financial leeway to pay to de-Carbonise their Energy and processes.
It has to be questioned if Carbon is pliable to pricing. Since it is such a large part of developed economies, it might not be possible to price it out.
By comparison, Sulphur Dioxide was an environmental bad arguably solved by a market upheld by various regulatory changes, such as the Clean Air Act in the United States. However, this pollutant did not figure in high percentage terms in the wider economy.
This is even more true of the market set up to control ozone-destroying chemicals – replacement chemicals were available for CFCs and HFCFCs – which constituted only a small part of the economy – and the market provisions of the Montreal Protocol were arguably implemented very inefficiently.
There is even evidence to suggest that some environmental bads do not get fixed by pricing or fines – there is still oil between sandy layers on the beaches resulting from the ExxonValdez mass oil spill, and there are continuing spills and leaks from various embedded processes such as Nuclear Energy, Coal and Tar Sands mining and refining. (Reference : “Silent Spill: The Organization of an Industrial Crisis”).
Considering the failure of commoditising Carbon to achieve any noticeable change, it is dubious whether the global Climate Change Fund for Mitigation and Adaptation will reach its intended targets (Reference : Gordon Brown and Meles Zenawi). Economists such as Nicholas Stern accept the concept that developed nations need to engage in both technology and financial transfer to the developing nations.
The Kyoto Protocol gave provisions for the so-called Clean Development Mechanism which originally proposed that developing countries were to be considered as having juicy spare unused Carbon Emissions to sell to the industrialised world in exchange for green technology. In reality it has offered a bonanza of opportunities to multinational corporations who could mop up the entire value of the Carbon traded, by investing in new clean production in developing nations.
But nothing has emerged that will transfer value to the developing nations themselves for Mitigation and Adaptation, apart from direct funding, but this will clearly be prone to the same reluctance to participate as the Make Poverty History and calls for debt “jubilees” of the past.
Sadly, precedents in global funds for the benefit of the less wealthy have a bad track record. Despite agreeing to contribute aid of 0.7% of GDP to go towards the Millenium Development Goals, wealthy nations have not contributed accordingly, plus they keep several countries in debt.
It has to be asked : how is the value actually transfered ? Money is only a virtual value, and is denominated in units that pertain to the purchasing power of industrialised economies in industrialised economies.
It may be better to replace ideas of an M&A Fund with a kind of FairER Trade – a framework that reinvigorates honest trade and not just fudged attempts at offsetting emissions. The Doha process has stalled and would need some assistance. How about trying to frame Climate action in terms of Trade action ?
In my view, what must happen is that international companies who conduct any trade from developing to developed nations must be obligated by that trade to bring education, health, Climate Change Adaptation and help with
indigenous green Energy and Agriculture for Climate Change Mitigation.
It is calculated that the Global South is the major producer of natural resources for the Global North. It should therefore be reasonable to insist that whichever organisation trades the goods should get directly involved in “philanthropy” in achieving the Millenium Development Goals and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in the country of origin.
Obviously, this wouldn’t work without completely cancelling the international debt of the Least Developed Countries.
This process I am trying to flesh out is that companies should support the sustainability of the supply networks that they use for their product sales. In other words, it is self-help. For example, it is in the interests of a company that buys coffee from Ethiopia to protect future supplies of coffee from Ethiopia.
Technology & Innovation
If you are an Energy engineer, it’s hard to be “technology-neutral”. Some are genuinely better than others in terms of overall costs, day-to-day costs, operational simplicity and the sustainability of resources and plant construction. It’s a sincere disappointment that this knowledge does not appear to be transferable to the mind and body politic.
There are some technological and social conflicts to overcome, the classic example being the astroturf resistance to wind turbines on the land. Blocks to the ramping up of Renewable Energy technologies are limitations that dictate a strong hand as regards a deliberate suite of investment instruments.
Then there are the non-solutions that offer complexity and uncertainty and are guaranteed to be expensive. The only way to encourage investment in new Nuclear Power for example, is to offer “hidden” subsidies in the form of the state underwriting the insurance for new reactors and the final clean up of the radioactive waste.
It is true that the industrialised economies need to do some serious investment in Energy in the next 40 years, and the priviatised Energy companies are obviously reluctant to spend the money, but it should be political dynamite that taxpayer money is being pocketed for new Nuclear and Carbon Capture.
Exaclty how much will taxpayers be forced to pay out to prop up Nuclear Power ? Haven’t we done enough bailing out of Nuclear Power (Reference : British Energy) ? Should public money be extorted to fund the profit-making activities of mining companies who will be the organisations entrusted with the Carbon Capture and Storage projects ?
The United Nations seems to regard the expertise and intervention of the corporations in policy matters as neutral and have sought their advice extensively, but this leads to the clear imposition of corporate influence in the IPCC reports. The technology corporates will by nature seek a compromise on action that involves real investment. In the past Big Energy companies have financed anti-Science campaigns, so there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to press for compromise. How much can we trust the corporate block when it promotes complex and expensive technologies ?
We cannot spare the material resources and Fossil Fuels that are required for the total overhaul of the Energy system over to Renewables to be used to support Energy-hungry Nuclear plant building and Energy-hungry “Clean” Coal. We need to commit all our resources to getting over the “Primary Investment Hump/Hurdle” for Renewables.
Maybe a system of Energy Bonds, where publics explicitly choose to fund new Renewable Energy Deployment, may offer a way of using funds in the best way.
Survival & Rights
There is a continued error in focussing on so-called “equity” in Carbon Allowances for the future (Reference Copenhagen Synthesis Key Message 4).
This is described by many as the “equal right to pollute” for each person on Earth.
A per capita Carbon Quota would be the simplest basis on which to form a global agreement, avoiding the problematic discussion of “historial responsibility” for Global Warming.
It is naively hoped that people will be naturally attracted to the ethical position of asserting equal Carbon Permits.
There is some kind of redistributive effect implied in the choice of this language. Of course fair shares per capita is the only fair outcome. How else would the developing nations be encouraged to sign up ?
But instead of trying to concentrate on Equity, we should be really focussing on Survival – since not everyone will want to subject their lives and businesses to self-control in Carbon.
I would suggest that we start from a position of recognising that all of us have used up a large part of our Carbon Budget for the rest of the Century, and then try to agree Access to Energy in future.
This discussion, about negotiating for our fair Energy Rights would have a stronger resonance for most people.
This new incentive system could be voiced in terms such as “I have the right to green Energy, Carbon-free fresh water” or “I have the right to clean transport; a properly insulated home…and a guilt-free lifestyle.”
Precautionary Principle – Risk Assessment
It seems that in all areas of public life, Health and Safety are paramount, except as regards the detrimental climatic possibilities of Global Warming.
Risk elimination cannot be achieved by denial in the Media – it may calm people for a while, but leave them with an angry shock of realisation later on.
A risk assessment that has some kind of impact would not be limited to sharing percentages with people – the table of risks of going over certain thresholds – because nobody seems to understand what the thresholds imply.
Here are some risk factors that should be part of the debate :-
(a) The risk of Climate Change causing serious disruption to a number of things like food production, trade of all kinds of naturally sourced products, insurance and disaster aid costs and passenger travel.
(b) The risk of a Carbon Pricing structure on the general Economy. That is, Carbon Pricing was originally proposed as a “choke” mechanism, a kind of Damocles Sword hanging over things; the threat should have precipitated change, reduction in emissions, but it did not.
(c) The risk that Peak Carbon Energy comes sooner rather than later.
(d) The risk that the Energy infrastructure will break down without serious state intervention worldwide (and while we bail out Energy, let’s make it Green).
(e) The risk that none of the policies so far proposed (including Carbon Taxation, Carbon Trading (under a Cap or not), Carbon Disclosure, Carbon Accounting have any impact whatsoever on Carbon Emissions.
People feel tied in what they feel permitted or have the capacity to address.
Yet we need to think bigger : Climate Change action has to be far larger than turning off the lights and unplugging phone chargers (Reference : Obama, ActOnCO2), or recycling.
The importance of the elimination of waste in creating a sustainable matrix in the use of material resources and Energy points to a re-analysis of most applications of technology, especially in transport and industrial activity. How sustainable can heavier-than-air aeroplanes ever be ? The alternative would be lighter-than-air-craft. And on what basis should the global manufacture of motor vehicles, earth-moving vehicles included, be allowed to grow ?
There are central questions about the increase in transportation, both in terms of passenger movements and freight in particular, which has been brought on by extensive development of global trade networks, most notably in food exports/imports. What seems to be increasing is needless trade, where nations literally exchange entirely equivalent products, owing to local production cost factors (Simms A. et al., 2009). Since all transportation requires the use of Energy, this is therefore the largest growing problem. Including transportation in the EU ETS will not affect this problem, as although transport is the fastest growing sector, it is not the largest.
The ultimate imperative, goal, must be de-Carbonisation of the sources of Energy.
Nobody should disagree with this goal unless they’re a raving sceptic, but even raving deniers could be persuaded to accept if they understood anything about Energy. We have to spend trillions in the very near future on Energy renovation, so why not make it clean Energy ? It has plenty of bonuses, even for those who don’t believe in Global Warming.
The “sales potential” and “market penetration” of any proposed policy or framework must be assessed and scoped before it is promoted or prioritised. It’s not enough just to try ideas out in a “market research” way to test the public for volatility or vote-ability.
NGOs and Governments are using the language of imperative to back up a number of policy proposals – yet this imperative to “act” has not yet reached clarity on the exact actions, tasks and actors responsible, leaving the public mind space open to “bait and switch” tactics from those with vested interests.
It is laudable that the United Kingdom pass the Climate Change Act, but it was incredibly short on mechanism to implementation.
If you look at action emerging at different levels in government you can see a gaping void. For example, Local Authorities all set about doing Climate Change Strategies and urban groups in particular centred on implementing Combined Heat and Power but nobody can say who will pay for it. This is the “dance of the questionners” – bold plans but no budgets.
Piecemeal measures will not succeed.