Bjorn Lomborg has a good idea on climate change mitigation

In yesterday’s Australian, Bjorn Lomborg of Skeptical Environmentalist fame shows that he is clearly in the camp on human contribution to climate change, but is very skeptical about Emissions Trading. He raises good points about the technology needed by 2100 to mitigate climate change, but is skeptical of the business as usual approach to technological evolution in meeting that need. I think his analysis is sobering, but perhaps a better pathway than just assuming the price signal from carbon will drive innovation in non-fossil fuels. While I disagree that there is no storage capacity for wind power (a solar system will soon be commenced in South Australia with night storage), his view is spot on and should influence the debate. He demonstrates that while one can accept the science of climate change, one doesn’t have to accept that carbon trading will bring about the change we need. Too many people on both sides of the debate are conflating these two issues and causing much confusion. Lomborg’s article is below, and can be accessed here. OUR present approach to solving global warming will not work. It is flawed economically, because carbon taxes will cost a fortune and do little, and it is flawed politically, because negotiations to reduce CO2 emissions will become ever more fraught and divisive. And even if you disagree on both counts, the present approach is also flawed technologically.nMany countries are now setting ambitious carbon-cutting goals ahead of global negotiations in Copenhagen this December to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Let us imagine that the world ultimately agrees on an ambitious target. Say we decide to reduce CO2 emissions by three-quarters by 2100 while maintaining reasonable growth. Herein lies the technological problem: to meet this goal, non-carbon-based sources of energy would have to be an astounding 2.5 times greater in 2100 than the level of total global energy consumption was in 2000.nThese figures were calculated by economists Chris Green and Isabel Galiana of McGill University. Their research shows that confronting global warming effectively requires nothing short of a technological revolution. We are not taking this challenge seriously. If we continue on our current path, technological development will be nowhere near significant enough to make non-carbon-based energy sources competitive with fossil fuels on price and effectiveness.nIn Copenhagen this December, the focus will be on how much carbon to cut, rather than on how to do so. Little or no consideration will be given to whether the means of cutting emissions are sufficient to achieve the goals. Politicians will base their decisions on global warming models that simply assume that technological breakthroughs will happen by themselves. This faith is sadly – and dangerously – misplaced.nGreen and Galiana examine the state of non-carbon-based energy today – nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, etc – and find that, taken together, alternative energy sources would get us less than halfway towards a path of stable carbon emissions by 2050, and only a tiny fraction of the way toward stabilisation by 2100. We need many, many times more non-carbon-based energy than is currently produced. Yet the needed technology will not be ready in terms of scalability or stability. In many cases, there is still a need for the most basic research and development. We are not even close to getting this revolution started.nExisting technology is so inefficient that – to take just one example – if we were serious about wind power, we would have to blanket most countries with wind turbines to generate enough energy for everybody, and we would still have the massive problem of storage: we don’t know what to do when the wind doesn’t blow.nPolicymakers should abandon fraught carbon-reduction negotiations, and instead make agreements to invest in research and development to get this technology to the level where it needs to be. Not only would this have a much greater chance of actually addressing climate change, but it would also have a much greater chance of political success.nThe biggest emitters of the 21st century, including India and China, are unwilling to sign up to tough, costly emission targets. They would be much more likely to embrace a cheaper, smarter, and more beneficial path of innovation.nToday’s politicians focus narrowly on how high a carbon tax should be to stop people from using fossil fuels. That is the wrong question. The market alone is an ineffective way to stimulate research and development into uncertain technology, and a high carbon tax will simply hurt growth if alternatives are not ready. In other words, we will all be worse off.nGreen and Galiana propose limiting carbon pricing initially to a low tax (say, $5 a tonne) to finance energy research and development. Over time, they argue, the tax should be allowed to rise slowly to encourage the deployment of effective, affordable technology alternatives.nInvesting about $100 billion annually in non-carbon-based energy research would mean that we could essentially fix climate change on the century scale. Green and Galiana calculate the benefits – from reduced warming and greater prosperity – and conservatively conclude that for every dollar spent this approach would avoid about $11 of climate damage. Compare this with other analyses showing that strong and immediate carbon cuts would be expensive, yet achieve as little as $0.02 of avoided climate damage.nIf we continue implementing policies to reduce emissions in the short term without any focus on developing the technology to achieve this, there is only one possible outcome: virtually no climate impact, but a significant dent in global economic growth, with more people in poverty, and the planet in a worse state than it could be.

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