We Need a Fresh Approach on Climate Change

September 9, 2009

Bjorn Lomborg
- Bjorn Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He is the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which brings together some of the world’s top economists, including 5 Nobel laureates, to set priorities for the world. The opinions expressed are his own. -

In this blog, I would like to share with you some of the best – and worst – ways to fix climate change. This is important because the Earth is warming up, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide are contributing to this warming, and humankind is dumping ever-increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Of course, this is a point that is made by many campaigners, politicians and the media every single day. But I think that in our discussions on global warming, we actually often miss a really important question: not if we should do something about global warming – but rather how best to go about this. Just like with any other problem we face, there are many possible remedies, and some of them are a whole lot better than others. Not just cheaper (although cost is one very important criteria), but more effective, more efficient and – crucially – more likely to actually happen.

We need to focus on the cost of the solutions and the real-world benefits we should expect from them. Why? Because I believe it is nothing less than morally unconscionable to spend enormous sums of money making a minor difference to long-term global warming and human well-being, if we could achieve a lot more impact – and leave future generations better-off – with a smaller investment through a smarter solution.

This year, my think-tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, commissioned 21 new research papers – you can read them all here along with summaries and op-eds on them – that examine the costs and benefits of a multitude of responses to global warming. Each research paper carefully examines one response to global warming, and highlights the costs and benefits of that approach.

The research in itself is very important, and is groundbreaking in many respects. It answers such questions as what can we achieve through climate engineering? What happens if the entire world signs up to stringent, immediate carbon cuts? Are we on the right path to achieving the technological breakthroughs needed to shift away from reliance on fossil fuel? How much can we achieve through adaptation? How much global warming damage can be prevented if we focus first on cutting methane or black carbon emissions, or if we put more emphasis on expanding forests?

The papers are written by top climate economists – many of whom are heavily involved in the work of the United Nations climate change panel, the IPCC. I believe we should pay attention to their findings, because these economists are experts in calculating costs and benefits and in looking at the ramifications of different climate policy approaches. Their work definitely fills a void in the climate debate.

But having a list of feasible responses to climate change is not actually enough. We have scarce resources, and we surely have an ethical obligation to address climate change the best that we can. That means that we need to work out which approaches could play a serious role in fixing climate change.

To help achieve this, the Copenhagen Consensus Center convened an expert panel of five of the world’s leading economists, including three recipients of the Nobel Prize. Last week, this impressive team deliberated on the research and engaged with the research authors. The expert panel was asked by the Copenhagen Consensus Center to answer the question:

If the global community wants to spend up to, say 250 billion dollars per year over the next 10 years to diminish the adverse effects of climate changes, and to do the most good for the world, which solutions would yield the greatest net benefits?

They have now come up with their answer – a prioritized list representing their consensus opinion, showing the best and worst possible responses to global warming. (A summary of all of their findings is available to download at the same website).

I believe that the expert panel’s findings highlight the problems with the world’s current political fixation on carbon taxes, and – equally importantly – underscore the vast promise shown by alternative responses to global warming.

The expert panel concluded that the most effective use of resources would be to invest immediately in researching marine cloud whitening technology. (This, fundamentally, is where boats spray seawater droplets into clouds above the sea to make them reflect more sunlight back into space, reducing warming). They also highlighted a need to immediately boost research into non-carbon energy sources to ensure that we can move away from reliance on fossil fuels.

The first of these policy options, climate engineering, could provide a cheap, effective, and rapid response to global warming. Remarkably, the research considered by the expert panel, written by lead author Dr Eric Bickel, suggests that a total of about 9 billion dollars spent developing marine cloud whitening technology might be able to cancel out this entire century’s global warming. That is a remarkable finding, and shows exactly why this is deserving of further, serious consideration.

I think it’s instructive to quote one of the Expert Panel members, Nobel Laureate economist Thomas Schelling, who said that “climate engineering has great promise. Even if one approaches it from a skeptical viewpoint, it is important to invest in research to identify the limitations and risks of this technology sooner rather than later.” In other words, regardless of your starting point about this technology – whether you are optimistic or pessimistic or plain cynical – there’s a really strong argument to start researching it now.

The finding that greater investment is needed in energy research came after the Expert Panel considered an excellent research paper by economists Professor Chris Green and Isabel Galiana of McGill University showing that non-fossil energy sources will – based on today’s availability—get us less than halfway toward a path of stable carbon emissions by 2050, and only a tiny fraction of the way towards stabilization by 2100. That’s a very significant finding. In other words, they are saying that there is a need for a total technology revolution which has not yet even started.

The expert panel’s findings don’t just show what we should be doing – they also highlight the policy responses that are not effective. In doing so, they really reveal the problems with the world’s current approach, which is of course a narrow focus on carbon taxes. The Expert Panel found that expensive, global carbon taxes would be an expensive, ineffective way to reduce the suffering from global warming, and placed these at the bottom of their list.

This finding was based on a groundbreaking research paper by renowned climate economist Professor Richard Tol, who showed that a high, global CO2 tax starting at 68 dollars could reduce world GDP by a staggering 12.9 percent in 2100—the equivalent of 40 trillion dollars a year – costing many times the expected damage of global warming.

There are really important implications for policy-makers here. Although carbon taxes and a ‘cap-and-trade’ scheme should, in theory, have very similar outcomes, the latter produces a much higher opportunity for pork-barrel politics and waste. So cap-and-trade schemes – which many politicians are considering implementing today – would be even less effective than taxes.

All of this is crucial knowledge, because we do not have the money to waste, nor the time to spend pursuing bad strategies. The reason for gathering the Expert Panel of economists now was that, this December, world leaders will gather here in Copenhagen to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

Their current path – of making ever-bigger promises of carbon cuts – is not likely to work. As the Expert Panel highlighted, it is flawed economically. Carbon taxes will cost a fortune and generate very little temperature reductions in a very long time.

It is also flawed politically, because negotiations to reduce CO2 emissions will become ever more complicated, pitting developing nations – which rely on burning fossil fuels to lift billions of people out of poverty – against richer nations.

And even if lofty promises are made in Copenhagen, the experience of past agreements in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto shows that they are not likely to be fulfilled. The reason for this isn’t because of any lack of good-will, but because cutting carbon emissions this way is incredibly difficult and expensive.

I believe that if world leaders don’t change track ahead of Copenhagen, they will be doing us – and future generations – a huge disservice.

If we care about the environment and about leaving this planet in the best state that we can, we actually have only one option: we all need to start seriously focusing, right now, on the most effective ways to fix global warming.

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