Smarter thinking on climate change

Editorial, Normal


POLITICIANS and commentators are understandably pessimistic about the chances of an international deal on carbon cuts emerging from the United Nations summit in Mexico in December.
Nothing has been resolved since the Copenhagen climate talks fell apart last year. Fortunately, recent research points to a smarter way to tackle climate change.
There is no longer any mainstream disagreement about the reality of global warming. The crucial questions concern the economics of our response.
However, this debate can be just as heated.
Ever since I published The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, I have always acknowledged that manmade global warming is real. Yet, activists have repeatedly labelled me a “climate-change denier”.
This is not because I have ever suggested that the basic science of global warming is wrong. Rather, it reflects anger and frustration over my insistence on pointing out that drastic carbon cuts make no sense.
The Copenhagen Consensus Centre – a think tank where I serve as director – recently asked a large group of top climate economists to explore the costs and benefits of different responses to global warming. At the same time, we convened a second, equally stellar group of economists, including three Nobel laureates, to examine all of the research and rank the proposals in order of desirability.
Cambridge University Press is publishing their research and findings this month, under the title Smart Solutions to Climate Change.
The book includes a chapter by prominent climate economist Richard Tol, who has been a contributing, lead, principal and convening author for the United Nations’ inter-governmental panel on climate change.
In his chapter, Tol shows why grand promises of drastic, immediate carbon cuts are such a flawed strategy.
Tol found that trying to keep temperature increases under 2°C, as the G-8 industrialised nations have promised to do, would require emissions reductions of about 80% by mid-century.
Based on conventional estimates, this would avoid total climate damages of about US$1.1 trillion across the century. However, it would cut economic growth by around US$40 trillion a year.
In other words, we would effectively be spending US$40 trillion every year by the end of the century to do just over US$1 trillion worth of total good. In fact, this estimate is wildly optimistic.
The calculation assumes that over 100 years, politicians everywhere in the world will consistently enact the most efficient, effective laws imaginable to reduce carbon emissions.
Dump that far-fetched assumption and the cost could jump by a factor of 10 or even 100. To put it starkly, such drastic carbon cuts are likely to do a lot more damage than climate change to our quality of life (especially for those in the developing world).
The reason is simple.
Despite all of the optimistic talk about wind, solar, geothermal and other sustainable, non-carbon-emitting energy sources, no alternative is remotely ready to shoulder the energy burden currently borne by fossil fuels. This is why I have long urged policymakers to increase significantly the amount of money invested in research and development of green-energy alternatives.
Now, there is research that shows exactly how we can put this approach into action.
In Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Chris Green of McGill University and Isabel Galiana look at current rates of progress and conclude that, by 2050, alternative energy sources will produce less than half the power needed to be able to stabilise carbon emissions.
By 2100, the gap would be even wider. The challenge is enormous. – Project Syndicate



*Bjorn Lomborg is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School.