Rem­e­dy­ing the tech­nol­ogy deficit needs to take prece­dence over ef­forts to cut car­bon

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - BJORN LOMBORG Bjorn Lomborg is pres­i­dent of the Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus Cen­tre and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Copen­hagen Busi­ness School.

Politi­cians are gath­er­ing in Poland for a cli­mate sum­mit be­ing billed as the most im­por­tant con­fer­ence since the Paris treaty was signed in 2015. Around the world the chat­ter­ing classes have de­clared that more po­lit­i­cal willpower is needed to solve global warm­ing. This is de­luded: it ig­nores the priv­i­leged place cli­mate change has among all of hu­man­ity’s chal­lenges and misses the real rea­sons for our fail­ure.

Across the past quar­ter­century cli­mate change has re­ceived more at­ten­tion — and gen­er­ated more proph­e­sies of doom — from po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious lead­ers, celebri­ties and roy­alty than any other is­sue.

It is given so much at­ten­tion that it is sac­ri­le­gious to even point out that we face other vast, com­plex, ex­pen­sive chal­lenges in­clud­ing war and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, su­per-killers such as tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and HIV, hunger and a lack of clean drink­ing water, gen­der in­equal­ity — and the list goes on. Many of these global chal­lenges have a greater cost and have pol­icy re­sponses that are bet­ter un­der­stood, more eas­ily im­ple­mented and will help hu­man­ity much more than our cur­rent re­sponse to cli­mate change.

Cli­mate change is real but it’s not our only prob­lem — and it’s not the apoca­lypse painted in the me­dia. The IPCC’s last ma­jor plan­e­tary sur­vey cal­cu­lated the global ef­fects of un­stopped cli­mate change. The sci­en­tists es­tab­lished that glob­ally the ef­fect of cli­mate change will be sim­i­lar to a sin­gle re­ces­sion. It will mean the av­er­age per­son for­goes ben­e­fits equiv­a­lent to be­tween 0.2 per cent and 2 per cent of in­come in the 2070s.

Bear in mind that by then in­comes will have in­creased by at least 300 per cent to 400 per cent.

But what about the nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that the me­dia con­stantly equates with global warm­ing? A lit­tle-re­ported find­ing in the re­cently pub­lished IPCC re­port is that there is lit­tle ba­sis for claim­ing that droughts, floods and hur­ri­canes have in­creased, much less that they have in­creased be­cause of car­bon emis­sions.

Yet we are be­ing told once again that we have one slim last op­por­tu­nity to save the planet. How fa­mil­iar. Nearly 40 years ago the UN en­vi­ron­ment chief warned we faced en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter “as fi­nal as nu­clear war” by 2000.

In 2009 British prime min­is­ter Gor­don Brown was among those claim­ing we were at doom’s door: if no cli­mate deal was struck that year, it would be “ir­re­triev­ably too late”. (No cli­mate deal was struck that year.)

There have been 23 an­nual UN-con­vened sum­mits at­tract­ing the great and the good. In Paris in 2015, world lead­ers signed a treaty to cut car­bon emis­sions. This loose col­lec­tion of na­tional car­bon­cut­ting prom­ises un­til 2030 (with vague prom­ises af­ter that) is not backed by any

reper­cus­sions for fail­ing or quit­ting. De­spite the clear like­li­hood that noth­ing would change once ev­ery­one got home, the lead­ers heartily slapped each other on the back and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists cheered.

Even at the time, the wish­ful think­ing seemed bizarre. One cli­mate anal­y­sis group gained at­ten­tion for find­ing that the Paris Agree­ment could re­sult in a sig­nif­i­cant tem­per­a­ture re­duc­tion of 0.9C. This came not from anal­y­sis of the prom­ises up un­til 2030 but from as­sum­ing there would be much stronger cli­mate poli­cies af­ter the Paris agree­ment: 98 per cent of the ex­pected re­duc­tions came from ac­tions af­ter 2030.

Ac­tivist group was even gid­dier, declar­ing the date of the treaty’s sig­na­ture marked “the end of the era of fos­sil fu­els”. That same group to­day says: “Stay­ing un­der 1.5C is now only a mat­ter of po­lit­i­cal will.” It was ut­terly wrong in 2015 and it is still wrong to­day.

The IPCC it­self sets out a string of highly im­plau­si­ble, in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive, tech­no­log­i­cally com­plex ac­tions that are all re­quired to­gether to have any hope of cut­ting car­bon enough to keep tem­per­a­ture rises un­der 1.5C. We need to hit peak car­bon diox­ide emis­sions within just a few years, stop us­ing coal en­tirely, shut a string of nat­u­ral gas-fired power plants, mas­sively ex­pand car­bon cap­ture tech­nol­ogy and in­crease our re­liance on nu­clear en­ergy. An area be­tween one mil­lion square kilo­me­tres (all of France plus all of Ger­many) and seven mil­lion square kilo­me­tres (three-quar­ters the size of the US or all of Aus­tralia) needs to be ded­i­cated to grow­ing crops for en­ergy, in a way that doesn’t dis­place food crops, oth­er­wise more peo­ple will go hun­gry.

The truth is that keep­ing rises un­der 1.5C in any re­al­is­tic sense is im­pos­si­ble. The new­est No­bel lau­re­ate in cli­mate eco­nomics points out that even 2C is un­re­al­is­tic: “2C ap­pears to be in­fea­si­ble with rea­son­ably ac­ces­si­ble tech­nolo­gies even with very am­bi­tious abate­ment strate­gies.”

In 2013 the IPCC es­ti­mated that the world could make only 400 gi­ga­tonnes of emis­sions be­fore the world would go over 1.5C. Con­ve­niently, it is now rather mag­i­cally more than dou­bling this fig­ure. Key IPCC au­thor Jim Skea came close to ad­mit­ting that all this is com­pletely far-fetched, say­ing: “Lim­it­ing warm­ing to 1.5 de­grees is pos­si­ble within the laws of chem­istry and physics but do­ing so would re­quire un­prece­dented changes.”

To achieve what the IPCC sets out, what is needed is not po­lit­i­cal willpower, it’s a string of mir­a­cles. Wil­ful wish­ful think­ing may make us feel warm and fuzzy but it is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous to use as a pol­icy guide when spend­ing tril­lions of dol­lars.

As a re­al­ity check, this is where we are to­day: the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency es­ti­mates that glob­ally we get less than 1 per cent of our en­ergy needs from so­lar and wind, and even in 2040, do­ing ev­ery­thing promised in the Paris Agree­ment, we’ll get 3.6 per cent. The IEA es­ti­mates that op­ti­misti­cally we’ll go from about two mil­lion elec­tric cars to­day to 300 mil­lion in 2040. This will re­duce global emis­sions by less than 1 per cent as these cars still will get half their elec­tric­ity from fos­sil fu­els and as oil will be­come cheaper and used more else­where as de­mand from cars re­duces.

The rea­son we are fail­ing isn’t be­cause peo­ple aren’t will­ing to take ac­tion. It’s be­cause green en­ergy sources are not yet com­pet­i­tive enough to take over from fos­sil fu­els for all of our en­ergy needs. Our pol­icy ap­proach puts the cart be­fore the horse by try­ing to force or en­tice peo­ple to make the switch to less ef­fi­cient, more ex­pen­sive tech­nol­ogy.

This has a huge so­ci­etal cost be­cause less ef­fi­cient, more ex­pen­sive en­ergy means less growth, es­pe­cially for the world’s poor. This, of course, also could help the many other chal­lenges still fac­ing the world. The mea­gre Paris Agree­ment alone will cost us all more than $1 tril­lion a year.

We need to en­sure green en­ergy is the smart, cost­ef­fec­tive choice. We should aban­don the failed prom­ise-to­cut-car­bon ex­per­i­ment and fo­cus on the tech­nol­ogy deficit.

Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus anal­y­sis shows a green en­ergy re­search and de­vel­op­ment bud­get worth about $100 bil­lion a year would be the most ef­fec­tive cli­mate pol­icy.

We should aban­don wish­ful think­ing and over-the-top rhetoric, and fo­cus on tack­ling all of hu­man­ity’s chal­lenges, in­clud­ing with smart, ef­fec­tive and work­able so­lu­tions to cli­mate change.

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