Bark­ing Up the Wrong Green Tree

The Economic Times - - Breaking Ideas - Bjørn Lomborg

The on­go­ing cli­mate sum­mit in Ka­tow­ice, Poland, has been given a boost by well-timed cli­mate change re­ports shap­ing the news agenda. But if we dig deeper, these re­ports demon­strate what is wrong with global warm­ing pol­icy dis­cus­sion to­day.

The first re­port was by the UN’s panel of cli­mate sci­en­tists, the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC). It was widely re­ported as urg­ing the world to dra­con­i­cally cut emis­sions to keep tem­per­a­ture rises be­low 1.5° C. In fact, politi­cians set them­selves this tar­get when they wrote the pre­am­ble to the Paris cli­mate change agree­ment in 2015, guided by pub­lic re­la­tions con­cerns.

Years later, they asked IPCC to find out what it would take to achieve this overly am­bi­tious tar­get. The sci­en­tists, who have promised to de­liver “pol­i­cyrel­e­vant but not pol­icy-pre­scrip­tive in­for­ma­tion”, oblig­ingly said it was tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble, but would “re­quire rapid, far-reach­ing and un­prece­dented changes in all as­pects of so­ci­ety”. In other words, reach­ing1.5° C is sim­ply un­re­al­is­tic. Yet, the re­port is now be­ing used by cam­paign­ers, politi­cians and even ac­tivist IPCC sci­en­tists, to claim that we need to make ex­treme car­bon cuts.

It would be a bit like ask­ing Nasa what it would take to move the en­tire hu­man pop­u­la­tion to Mars. Nasa would oblig­ingly tell us that it is tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble, but would re­quire far-reach­ing changes to our cur­rent pri­or­i­ties and un­prece­dented in­vest­ments in space tech­nol­ogy. Cam­paign­ers would be sim­i­larly wrong in say­ing, ‘See, Nasa is telling us that we all need to go to Mars!’

The next cli­mate re­port to be seized upon by ac­tivists with an axe to grind was the US Cli­mate Assess­ment. Cli­mate sci­en­tist Michael Mann main­tained that the assess­ment’s pre­dic­tions were re­flected in “un­prece­dented weather ex­tremes” of droughts and floods. Ac­tu­ally, the assess­ment — and science — tell a dif­fer­ent story.

“Drought sta­tis­tics over the en­tire con­tigu­ous US have de­clined,” the re­port finds, re­mind­ing us that the1930s Dust Bowl era in the US and Cana­dian prairies was far worse, and ac­cept­ing the IPCC find­ing on flood­ing that “did not at­tribute changes in flood­ing to an­thro­pogenic [hu­man] in­flu­ence nor re­port de­tectable changes in flood­ing mag­ni­tude, du­ra­tion, or fre­quency”.

Much of the me­dia cov­er­age pre­sented the re­port sug­gest­ing that there is a ‘worst-case sce­nario’ in which cli­mate change will shrink the US econ­omy ‘by 10%’ by the end of this cen­tury. But the UN’s cli­mate sce­nar­ios ac­tu­ally en­vi­sion US GDP per capita will more than triple. So, this re­duc­tion would come from a GDP 300% higher than to­day.

Worse, the10% fig­ure as­sumes tem­per­a­tures will in­crease about 7.8° C by 2100. Cli­mate assess­ment es­ti­mates that with no sig­nif­i­cant cli­mate ac­tion, US tem­per­a­tures will in­crease by be­tween 2.8 and 4.8° C. Us­ing the high-end es­ti­mate of 4.8° C, the dam­age would be only half as big at 5%. Even 4.8° C is bizarrely pes­simistic. It stems from an ex­treme, high-emis­sions sce­nario in which one re­cent study uses more fos­sil fu­els than phys­i­cally plau­si­ble, while an­other re­jects this as ‘ex­cep­tion­ally un­likely’.

More­over, two-thirds of the pur­ported ‘10% dam­age’ comes from as­sum­ing that as the US gets hot­ter, there will be in­creas­ing fa­tal­i­ties. It is true more peo- ple die when it is un­usu­ally hot. But lives are not shorter in hot­ter places. Stud­ies of mi­grants show peo­ple adapt quickly, within weeks. They also take ac­tions like get­ting an air con­di­tioner, or chang­ing their houses that re­duce their risk of over­heat­ing. So, the key me­dia take­away from this re­port has been wildly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Be­sides such alarmism, what these two re­ports have in com­mon is that they ig­nore the costs of cli­mate change poli­cies. Us­ing the best peer-re­viewed eco­nomic mod­els, the to­tal cost of Paris — through slower GDP growth from higher en­ergy costs — will reach $1-2 tril­lion a year from 2030 to bring about a cli­mate ef­fect of a neg­li­gi­ble 0.05° C re­duc­tion or less by 2100.

It’s so ex­pen­sive be­cause green en­ergy isn’t ready to re­place fos­sil fu­els at scale. Na­tions are us­ing ex­pen­sive sub­si­dies and other poli­cies to force immature green tech­nolo­gies on con­sumers and busi­nesses. The smart op­tion is to adopt a tech­nol­ogy-led pol­icy and in­vest far more into green en­ergy R&D. Rather than forc­ing the roll­out of immature en­ergy sources, green en­ergy needs to out­com­pete fos­sil fu­els.

Sadly, with the drum­beat of ac­tivists de­mand­ing ac­tions, politi­cians in Poland are on track to sign up for fur­ther ex­pen­sive prom­ises that will do very lit­tle.

The writer is pres­i­dent, Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus Cen­tre

…by tak­ing off your jacket

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