What Must Governments Do to stop Global Warming?




"Making the shift to a sustainable lifestyle is one of the most important challenges for the 21st century. The reality of climate change brings home to us the consequence of not facing up to these challenges" (quoted in Tim Jackson, ed., The Earthscan Reader on Sustainable Consumption, Earthscan, 2006)

Tom Burke has challenged the green movement to state what action is required from governments to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change.

In October 2006 former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank Sir Nicholas Stern published the Stern Review , which showed that there is a clear and definite advantage in taking action to mitigate global warming, as opposed to just letting it happen. Stern calculated that , if unchecked, global warming would cost the world the equivalent of 5% of current world GDP, going on up to 20% in the worst case, for the indefinite future. On the other hand, the cost of mitigating global warming by switching over from a fossil fuel to a solar energy base for our economies would cost about 1% of GDP, for perhaps 50-100 years. To put this in context, the USA spends 4% of its GDP on arms. A 1% GDP investment to avoid a 5-20% GDP cost is therefore highly attractive from a strictly financial point of view, let alone from the aspect of environmental reality.

There are of course huge uncertainties connected with all aspects of economics, let alone the economics of climate change, but a return on investment ration of 20:1 , or even 5:1 would be enough to get the juices of a City investor going, so Stern is a reasonable starting point. The core criticism of Stern has been in his use of a very low discount rate. This is a technical phrase of which the vernacular equivalent is "Blow you, grand children, I'm all right". Stern dismissed this as unethical, and we are inclined to agree with him.

The vast majority of mankind come out of climate change mitigation action very much better off. Even if there were uncertainty about the science of climate change, action is still a vastly better option than inaction . The only outright losers will be the oil companies, as shown by the disgraceful efforts of ExxonMobil to obfuscate the climate change debate, and delay action .

Stern had four main headings for his costs. I have used his headings, but expanded them to show how they would function.

First, he calls for emissions trading in greenhouse gases (GHG). The path favoured by the green movement is called Contraction and Convergence. Here, the international community sets a target of CO2 levels (and other GHGs) compatible with avoiding a disastrous level of climate change. This is set by consensus at a 2% increase on 1990 levels. Next, each country is allocated an amount of GHG emissions that will keep them within the target. The allocation is on a per capita basis. The effect of this is that less developed countries will usually not need to use up all their GHG quotas, and so can sell them on to industrialised countries, who will at first exceed their fair share quotas because of their higher CO2 emissions. The attraction of this part of C&C is that poor countries receive a wealth uplift. As time goes on, rich and poor countries converge towards an equitable share - hence the "convergence" part of the term.

This is a reasonable way of going about things, so reasonable that even the policy of the British Government is edging towards acceptance of C&C, albeit with the speed of a melting glacier. Their stance in international negotiations is that it is too early to talk about actual proposals for dealing with it and that they are waiting, Micawber like, for something to turn up. When that something does emerge, agreement will have to be 100% before anything starts happening. This is clearly a recipe for delay and inaction.

How could the process of negotiation be speeded up? Negotiating parties could use Simultaneous Policy in parallel with the conventional negotiating process. Simultaneous Policy means "we all jump together". Advanced countries would signal that they would be prepared to implement C&C as soon as a certain number (not 100% as that is unrealistic) of other parties join in with the same pledge. As time goes on, other countries sign up, until the target number for action is reached.

Once countries have signed up to carbon emissions quotas, they would have to break down their overall carbon quota and issue them to businesses and individuals as carbon credits - which are similar to well-known rations system in wartime, except that they can be legally traded, so that frugal consumers would get a reward, and wasteful consumers would have to pay extra. Here, green economics is redistributive, bringing about convergence between rich and poor, which has advantages in terms of social cohesion. This offsets the somewhat regressive effects of some green taxes.

It is probable the a body set up by the UN will have to act as an honest broker in the implementation of GHG agreements. There will be good motivation on the part of poor countries, but compliance from rich countries may be wanting in some cases, so the controlling body will require financially persuasive powers.

The introduction of the low carbon economy will be paralleled by the growth of green economy generally, which in itself will increase health and social cohesion, since green economic activity is generally labour intensive. The green economy can be introduced even in a recession by means of a Keynesian Green Wage Subsidy .

Stern's second point was the need for Technology cooperation: "the deployment of new low-carbon technologies should increase up to five-fold". This entails the sharing of knowledge, and the transfer of renewable energy technologies wholesale to developing countries, enabling them to skip the fossil fuel phase of industrial development, and pass straight on to the solar energy phase. Developing countries are generally well supplied with sun and wind energy, so solar heating, and photovoltaic
electricity is an excellent opportunity. Incoming technologies such as solar concentrators, which use mirrors to focus solar energy to turn turbines, offer great promise, and can be set up in desert areas of the world. If photovoltaic cells the size of the UK were installed in the Sahara, they would produce as much electricity as the world currently needs. New technologies are coming through that can make electricity transmission much more efficient, and hydrogen can be used as an energy transfer medium. We have the technology, and we have the money. Political will is lacking at the moment, but it is coming through.

Energy is not the only technology transfer that is needed. Water shortages, brought on by a combination of human population growth and climate change, will undermine the energy riches that solar technology will bring to hot countries. Water conservation measures are necessary, with rain water harvesting and storage, and water production and purification through extensive roll-out of solar desalination.

Stern's second point is Action to reduce deforestation: "The loss of natural forests around the world" he said "contributes more to global emissions each year than the transport sector. Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions; large scale international pilot programmes to explore the best ways to do this could get underway very quickly".

In essence, the means to achieve this is to pay forested countries more money to keep them than they would receive if they cut or burned them. One side effect of this approach is to curb biodiesel production from land which has been deforested. The only permissible place to grow biodiesel is from land that is currently desert.

Reforestation can make an enormous contribution to atmospheric CO2 levels over the next 100 years. There is a significant drive to use trees as carbon offset, which has generated a debate that needs of clarification. The key objection is that of "Moral Hazard" - that if we can offset carbon, some will think it is OK to continue to burn it. This is a false dichotomy: it is possible, indeed necessary, to do both.

This leads us on to the question of oceanic carbon sinks. Half of the CO2 that human industry has put into the air has been fixed down again by natural processes, chiefly in the oceans. These oceanic sinks are beginning to fail, and so we need to study how to heal and amplify them. We know that one atom of iron can fix down 10,000 atoms of carbon through fertilizing the phytoplankton. We know also that there are down currents in the oceans where these fertilized planktonic blooms could be taken down, to settle with their contained carbon on the sea bed. Clearly there is a need to study this possibility, to ensure that there is no unacceptable environmental side effect worse than the desired end effect. The main case brought against this research is again the moral hazard argument.

Saving the planet by land, sea and air: forests, ocean fertilization, and now an environmental scientist by the name of David Keith has proposed that in an emergency, particles could be introduced into the mesosphere, the layer above the stratosphere, that would increase the albedo (reflectivity) of the atmosphere and therefore reduce solar warming .

These techniques were dismissed as "technical fixes" by the green movement in the past, but now the situation has become far more serious, and we have moved in to an area where pure emissions reduction is not enough to prevent severe ongoing ecological damage.

Stern's final point was Adaptation: "The poorest countries are most vulnerable to climate change. It is essential that climate change be fully integrated into development policy, and that rich countries honour their pledges to increase support through overseas development assistance. International funding should also support improved
regional information on climate change impacts, and research into new crop varieties that will be more resilient to drought and flood". This needs no expansion here.

In all, the actions that need to be taken to avoid catastrophic global heating are clear to see and understand. They will involve outlays, but the costs are tolerable, and are a very reasonable investment. One of the spin-offs from this project will be a new sense of international co-operation in a supremely important task for the common good. This will improve the capacity for peace between nations, which will in turn reduce the need for the psychotic levels of military spending and activity that the world is suffering at the moment, which will in turn free up money for spending on the true basis for human security - a virtuous cycle for a life-supporting planet.

© Richard Lawson
Friday, 16 November 2007

© 2001 R. Lawson