Eight ways to tackle climate change

Lightning from a tornadic thunderstorm passing over Clearwater, Kansas, strikes at an open field last Sunday. “Data on the burning of fossil fuels since the mid-18th century show a consistent rise in annual emissions of carbon dioxide.”  Photograph: Reuters

Lightning from a tornadic thunderstorm passing over Clearwater, Kansas, strikes at an open field last Sunday. “Data on the burning of fossil fuels since the mid-18th century show a consistent rise in annual emissions of carbon dioxide.” Photograph: Reuters


Humanity has decided to yawn and let the real and present dangers of climate change mount. That was the argument I made in last week’s column. Nothing in the responses to it undermined that conclusion. If anything, they reinforced it. Judged by the world’s inaction, climate sceptics have won. That makes their sense of grievance more remarkable. For the rest of us, the question that remains is whether anything can still be done and, if so, what?

In considering this issue, a rational person should surely recognise the extent of the consensus of climate scientists on the hypothesis of man-made warming. An analysis of abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed scientific papers, published between 1991 and 2011 and written by 29,083 authors, concludes that 98.4 per cent of authors who took a position endorsed man-made (anthropogenic) global warming, 1.2 per cent rejected it and 0.4 per cent were uncertain. Similar ratios emerged from alternative analyses of the data.

A possible response is to insist that all these scientists are wrong. That is, of course, conceivable. Scientists have been wrong in the past.

Yet to single out this branch of science for rejection, merely because its conclusions are so uncomfortable, is irrational, albeit comprehensible.

This leads to a second line of attack, which is to insist that these scientists are corrupted by the money and fame. To this my response is: really?

Is it plausible that a whole generation of scientists has invented and defended an obvious hoax for (modest) material gains, knowing that they will be found out?

It is more plausible that scientists who reject the typical view do so for just such reasons, since powerful interests oppose the climate consensus, and the academics on their side of the debate are far fewer.

Catastrophic outcomes
Unfortunately, however rational it may be to seek to lower the risk of catastrophic outcomes, this is not what is happening now or seems likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Data on the burning of fossil fuels since the mid-18th century show a consistent rise in annual emissions of carbon dioxide.

These data do, it is true, show a slowdown in the rate of rise of annual emissions in the 1980s and 1990s. But this slowdown was reversed in the 2000s, as China’s coal-burning increased. Today, 30 per cent of CO2 in the atmosphere is directly due to humanity.

What is behind this recent surge in emissions is quite clear: catch-up growth. China was responsible for 24 per cent of the global total emissions in 2009, against 17 per cent for the US and 8 per cent for the euro zone. But each Chinese person emits only a third as much as an American and less than four-fifths of a resident of the euro zone. China is a relatively wasteful emerging economy, in terms of its emissions per unit of output. But it still emits less per head than the high-income countries because its people remain relatively poor.

Its leaders feel, rightly, that there is no moral reason to accept a ceiling on the emissions allowed for each Chinese individual far lower than the level Americans insist upon for themselves.

As the emerging countries develop, emissions per person will tend to rise towards levels in high-income countries, raising the global average. This is why global emissions per person rose by 16 per cent between 2000 and 2009, a period of fast growth in emerging economies.

So forget the rhetoric: not only the stocks of CO2 in the atmosphere, but even the flows, are getting worse. Sceptics convinced that the best thing to do is nothing should stop moaning: they have won.

Close to zero
What about the rest of us? The chances that humanity will achieve the reduction in emissions needed to keep CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million and so greatly reduce the risks of a rise in global temperature of more than 2 degrees are close to zero. The 25-40 per cent cut in emissions of high-income countries by 2020, needed to put the world on that path, will not happen.

But in no sense does this mean inaction should continue. Unless the most apocalyptic scenario happens, humanity may be able to curb emissions and buy itself time. So in this grim situation, what is to be done? Here are eight possibilities.

First, implement carbon taxes. Taxing bad things is always a good place to start. In the present context, emissions are such a bad. Taxes are the simplest way to shift incentives. Since the revenue would accrue to each government, the proceeds could be deliberately used to lower other taxes – on employment, for example.

The complex global distributional questions could be ignored. It would be best if it were possible for governments to commit themselves to a long-term tax escalator, so giving investors a degree of predictability to the cost of carbon.

Second, go nuclear. This is why France is such a remarkably low-carbon economy. It is a model others should embrace, not run from.

Third, impose really tough emissions standards on cars, domestic appliances and other machinery. Innovation will flower in response to the mixture of price and regulatory standards, as has so frequently happened before. We will not know what businesses can do if we do not dare to ask.

Global regime
Fourth, create a secure global trade regime in the lower-carbon fuels. This is one way to persuade China to shift away from coal.

Fifth, develop ways of financing the transfer of the best available technologies for creating and, still more important, saving energy across the entire planet.

Sixth, let governments invest in research and early-stage innovation, through a mixture of funding university research and supporting public-private partnerships.

Seventh, invest in adaptation to the effects of climate change. This will surely also have to be a focus of development assistance in the future. Such adaptation may well include large-scale movements of people.

Finally, think through geo-engineering, large-scale manipulation of the planet to reverse climate change, dire though that idea is.

None of this can be enough to eliminate the risks of seriously untoward climate shifts. But it does look to be the best we can do now, given the economic pressures.

The attempt to shift our choices away from the ones now driving ever-rising emissions has failed. It will, for now, continue to fail. The reasons for this failure are deep-seated. Only the threat of more imminent disaster is likely to change this and, by then, it may well be too late. This is a depressing truth. It may also prove a damning failure.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013

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