climate change

The Case for Abandoning CO2 Emission Reduction Targets

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Lecture date: Sun, 10th Jul, 2016
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Global anthropogenic CO2 emissions continue their inexorable rise. The science shows that there is the increasing likelihood that the world is heading towards an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. Yet despite the multitude of research papers, articles, meetings, and political activity dissipated in the last two decades, we seem to be incapable of implementing mitigation policies that are effective. The reason for this paralysis is that the global strategic response to climate change is fundamentally flawed and is inhibiting
progress. We call for a complete change in the world’s strategic response to climate change and to replace it on one based on pragmatism and coherent ethics.
The cornerstone international policy response to the issue of anthropogenic climate change was defined at the UNFCC meeting in Kyoto in 1997. It is the setting of and striving to achieve globally agreed, national greenhouse gas (CO2 equivalent) emissions reduction targets. The Paris Agreement (2015) is simply a logical extension of this strategy.

But is this target strategy effective? Analysis shows that CO2 emission reduction targets have had some success, notably at the individual company and national levels. However, they are less successful at the international level. But, it is at the global level that success is critical. In the period covered by the Kyoto Protocol (1990 to 2013) worldwide CO2 emissions increased by nearly 60%. The consensus scientific view is that the original objective of using these targets to limit the probability of surface temperature increases to less than 2° C is unlikely to be achieved.

Individual countries have responded differently to these targets, but as an example, the UK has conspicuously set its own challenging CO2 emission reduction targets and has indeed claimed success in achieving these. Some of the activities undertaken in this cause are: (1) heavily subsidised installations of on- and off-shore wind turbines, and domestic and industrial solar cell systems, (2) publically financed domestic and industrial heating and lighting efficiency drives, and(3) establishing a financial sector in emissions trading.

In reality the impact of these initiatives on the UK’s CO2 emission levels has been minimal. The net contribution to CO2 emission reduction from solar and wind sources requires careful auditing and there remains considerable debate over energy and carbon payback times. Also, these energy sources can only reasonably provide a fraction of the UK’s total consumption requirements and the issue of matching supply fluctuations with demand remains a fundamental problem. Although there are laudable arguments for enhanced energy efficiency, “Jevon’s paradox” will come into play – whereby part of the energy saved by efficiency enhancements is simply used by consumers in some other energy dissipation context – thereby limiting any benefit. It is extremely difficult to distinguish the impact of emissions trading from other policies or market influences. There is no clear evidence to indicate that it has had, as yet, any significant impact on total CO2 emissions in the countries that are operating this system. The principal impact of all these initiatives has been to
increase the price of energy.

Claims of reductions at national levels are often distorted by the export of energy intensive industries and in the case of the UK the replacement of coal with gas as the primary source.

At the global level, the factor that has the major impact upon CO2 emissions is the total level of economic activity.

However, it is important to note that there have been notable advances in reducing CO2 emissions by some cities when they have focussed on technological solutions to specific energy demands (e.g. Barcelona: smart energy and transportation and Bogata: electric buses).
Addressing anthropogenic climate change is driven by the need to minimise the risk and scale of any negative future impact on humanity. This is not an isolated ethical problem and cannot be successfully addressed without proper consideration of the  interdependent global issues relating to energy shortage and energy poverty.

Global economic and population growth forecasts indicate that a 1.5 to 3 fold increase in energy supply will be needed by 2050 and this could be in the range 3 to 5 fold by 2100. This is a monumental challenge, even without the issues relating to fossil fuels.

The most direct route to reduce CO2 emissions, i.e. to meet the targets, would be to reduce energy usage by whatever means, including the mechanism of price increases. Not surprisingly many of the policies that have been pursued do exactly that, with a direct negative impact on humanity.
Ethics points us to a larger horizon and to one clear solution to the related ethical issues of climate change and energy price and supply: i.e. the development and global deployment of abundant clean energy that is cost-competitive with fossil fuels. This should be the absolute focus of international effort.

Innovative Research and Development

No proven, cost competitive clean energy supply system (with the required scalability and consistency) presently exists. The energy supply sector has demonstrated neither the culture nor motivation to lead innovation in this area. Globally co-ordinated, intensive and focussed R&D is required to address his core issue. An international “Manhattan-type” programme, as we have called for seven years, with open access would be an appropriate vehicle. The primary motivation would be the eventual reduction of the cost of clean energy and the commensurate increase in the scale of deployment. For publically 11 funded R&D, the key determinants for investing in programmes would be (1) the potential for realising cost reductions in genuinely clean energy systems and (2) the potential total global capacity of the energy source (the “abundance factor”). Ultimately, cost reduction would be undertaken in a competitive market but prototype and beta site demonstrations with roadmaps for development and deployment could be trialled as realistic indicators of potential.

The solution is to develop technologies and conditions such that global supply of cheap clean energy is a competitive and profitable market for commercial exploitation. It is evident that without public intervention this will not happen in the foreseeable future.

Drop the negative target

It is well established that policies based upon ill-considered targets can result in ideological clashes with the core problems not being resolved. In 2003 a seminal paper was published highlighting the danger of the use of a badly chosen target in the area of marine  biology. The climate change arena has been characterised by problems almost identical to those defined in this paper i.e. polarised opinions, false predictions and emotive and divisive language, coupled with counter-productive actions and inertia.

There have been many studies on the selection and effectiveness of targets. A case has been made for using a set of criteria summarised by the acronym CUTE (Comprehensive, Understandable, Time-Bound and Enabling) when considering targets for determining public policy.

CO2 emission targets manifestly fail to satisfy these criteria. They are not comprehensive, because they do not address the interdependent issues of energy supply, and they are not “understandable by all, as the relationship between CO2 emissions and their impact on humanity is highly complex and uncertain. It cannot be claimed that they have enabled effective policies to be implemented in
a time-bound manner. This analysis would indicate that it is not surprising that they are failing.

There may be some merit for individual nations using their own self-determined target strategy. But for this to be effective and valuable it needs to be a target that focuses on the solution, instead of the problem. A simple option would be one based upon the amount of clean energy consumed per annum (CE) as a percentage of the total energy (TE) used in that same period i.e. the Clean Energy Target (CE %):

CE % = {CE/TE} × 100

Clearly the scale of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is a function of the size and prosperity of the world’s population and the anticipated increases in both could be the dominant factor in future emission levels. The most successful, and humanitarian solution to population growth is to increase prosperity and educational opportunities. This leads to the non-intuitive conclusion that “by reducing the price of energy (from any source!)… total energy consumption would also be reduced” or The Price Conundrum i.e. any action that increases the price of energy will reduce the living standards of a proportion of the global population and lead to accelerated population growth and increased energy demand.

The lack of positive engagement demonstrated by some nations, their leaders (viz Trump) and citizens throughout the world has been a fundamental barrier to progress.

In this new strategy, the objective of the publicly funded R&D programme is to produce cost-competitive clean energy. The focus on technology, cost and global supplies is comprehensible and provides a practical route forward. The research roadmap would be transparent and based upon a defined budget. This would avoid the haphazard national public subsidies on green schemes often driven
by short-term political expedience. The vision of “a world with abundant, low-cost clean energy” is a considerably more powerful and positive message than “a world with no man-made CO2 emissions”.

Voluntary CE% targets could be positive in generating transitional progress, but unlike CO2 emission reduction targets they are not essential to the core strategy, simply a vehicle for enabling effective policies to be introduced. Energy supply systems will likely vary from country to country with available resources and the results of the R&D. There is no shortage of ideas for technological solutions simply the commitment and funding to effectively pursue them.

It is possible that the costs of clean energy will never be as low as fossil fuel sources (although, estimated “Levelized Energy Cost” analyses on various clean systems have indicated that this is unlikely). In this case, market forces would not be the driver for their introduction; legislation and/or market manipulation (a carbon tax) would be required. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the world’s leaders to establish the conditions necessary to efficiently and effectively develop clean energy systems that are as cheap as possible.
The thesis of this paper is that there needs to be a volte-face in the approach that the world is taking.

Firstly, we need to drop the CO2 emissions reduction target strategy. Since the Tokyo Protocol (1997), the world has focussed on CO2 emission reductions. By focussing on the problem, progress on the solution has been severely constrained and limited. The Paris Agreement does not change the focus; in the EU summary document there is no mention of clean energy.

Secondly, we need to launch a major global R&D programme on clean energy sources and their deployment.

Fortunately, there is a vehicle that could play a major part of this initiative. The most significant outcome of Paris was the announcement of “Mission Innovation”, inspired by Bill Gates, which brings together countries and funding to accelerate the development and deployment of affordable, clean energy throughout the world. It is essential that the world’s leaders and politicians appreciate that this is where all the focus, resources and effort needs to be placed.
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Ever since sixth form, Evan Parker has had abiding interests in how we might improve society and, in religion (although he is not religious). He has worked in industry and has spun out a company on solar energy. He held the Chair in Semiconductor Physics at the University of Warwick for 24…