The United Nations-led climate change conference in Bali will be remembered less for the “road map that it eventually created than for a messy collision between the United States and much of the rest of the world that kept onlookers transfixed. Environmental campaigners vilified America for resisting European Union pressure to pre-commit to specific temperature targets – namely, that global warming should be limited to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial temperatures.
This target has become a veritable commandment of campaigners since the EU embraced it in 1996. The media often refer to it, sometimes saying that unless it is met, climate change would be very dangerous for humanity. In fact, the target is not scientifically backed, and the suggestion that we could achieve it is entirely implausible.
Stopping temperatures from rising by more than 2°C would require draconian, instant emission reductions – for the OECD the reductions would have to be between 40-50% below their expected path in just 12 years. Even if political consensus could be found, the cost would be phenomenal: one model estimates that the total global cost would be around $84 trillion, while the economic benefits would amount to just a seventh of this amount.
The suspiciously round figure of 2°C provides one clue to the fact this target is not based in science. The first peer-reviewed study that analyzed it, published in 2007, scathingly described it as being supported by “thin arguments, based on inadequate methods, sloppy reasoning, and selective citation from a very narrow set of studies.
In any case, a temperature limit is obviously a political rather than a scientific statement. Setting a limit means weighing up the costs and benefits of a world with temperatures at one level, and comparing them with the costs and benefits if we were to turn down the thermostat. This is an inherently political process.
Deciding how much we should let temperatures rise is like working out how many people should die in traffic accidents by adjusting the speed limit. There is no scientifically “correct number of traffic deaths. Ideally, the number should be zero. But that would require lowering the limit to walking speed – at an immense cost to society.
It has been widely reported that the UN’s climate change panel (the IPCC) tells us that science shows that industrial countries’ emissions should be reduced by 25-40% by 2020. This is simply incorrect: the IPCC’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientists are “policy neutral .
Yet many journalists reported from Bali that the US had rejected the science of the 25-40% emission reduction. They lamented how the science in the final document had been relegated to a footnote, stressing how shortsighted, national self-interest had won out. But this interpretation is flatly wrong. If we look at the reference in the Bali footnote, the IPCC clearly says that emissions should be reduced 25-40% if you choose the low EU target but 0-25% or less if you choose a higher target. Nevertheless, like many newspapers, the International Herald Tribune wrote that the IPCC assessment said “that the temperature rise had to be limited to 2oC.
Our one-sided focus on rapid reductions in CO2 emissions is both unnecessarily expensive and unlikely to succeed. At the Rio summit in 1992, we promised to cut emissions by 2000, yet overshot the target by 12%. In Kyoto in 1997, we promised even more radical emission cuts by 2010, which we will miss by 25%. Making ever-stronger promises on top of ever more failed promises is hardly the right way forward.
Instead, we should look for smarter policy options, like aiming to ensure that alternative energy technologies at reasonable prices will be available within the next 20-40 years. This could be achieved if all countries committed to spending 0.05% of GDP on research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies. The cost – a relatively minor $25 billion per year – would be almost 10 times cheaper than the Kyoto Protocol (and many more times cheaper than a standard Kyoto II). Yet it would increase R&D globally 10-fold.
Moreover, while it would embrace all countries, the rich would pay the larger share. It would let each country focus on its own vision of future energy needs, whether that means concentrating on renewable sources, nuclear energy, fusion, carbon storage, conservation, or searching for new and more exotic opportunities. It would also avoid ever-stronger incentives for free riding and ever-harder negotiations over ever more restrictive Kyoto-style treaties.
A sensible policy dialogue requires us to talk openly about our priorities. Often, there is a strong sentiment that we should do anything required to ameliorate a situation. But we don’t actually do that. In democracies, we debate how much to spend on different initiatives, knowing that we don’t have infinite resources, and that sometimes throwing more money at the problem isn’t the best answer.
When we talk about the environment, we know tougher restrictions will mean better protection, but with higher costs. Deciding what level of temperature change we should aim for – and how to achieve it – is a discussion that should engage all of us. But confusing political campaigning with scientific reason won’t help.
Bjorn Lomborg, the organizer of Copenhagen Consensus, is author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Climate Change and editor of Solutions for the World’s Problems: Costs and Benefits. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate. (www.project-syndicate.org)