A new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common. This new breed is not sceptical of the science, but of the policy response. The latest example is a new report by a group of leading academics: How to get climate policy back on course. It questions the approach to climate change action within the United Nations negotiations. Rather than the current approach that emphasises targets for emissions reductions, the report advocates support for low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies (PDF).
The frustration of the report’s authors is understandable. The negotiations since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force in 1994 have been painfully slow. For too long some industrialised economies – particularly the US – were either lukewarm or hostile to the negotiating process. The emissions reductions targets announced for 2020 by leading developed countries such as the US and Japan are not sufficient – this is despite Japan’s commitment to exclusively domestic action. Furthermore, long promised finance and technological assistance for developing countries has yet to materialise.
However, we shouldn’t take this frustration too far and make an idealised climate change policy the enemy of the good. As the authors of the report emphasise, there is considerable economic, political and psychological capital invested in the current policy approach. This means that the negotiations in Copenhagen are the only game in town. But none of the measures advocated in the report will add up unless they are implemented within an overall limit on emissions. Caps on emissions are required as part of what Anthony Giddens has recently called the “ensuring State”. We need to know that the actions of individuals, businesses and communities are sufficient to limit emissions in line with climate science.
Caps on emissions are more effective where they are implemented alongside policies to price carbon emissions. The EU emissions trading scheme does this, and there are provisions in the US climate change bill for a similar scheme. There is huge room for improvement in the EU, for example, by tightening caps and reducing the number of get out clauses for industries with large lobbying budgets. But again this is no excuse to dismiss the whole idea. Pricing carbon is necessary (though not sufficient) to move economies towards a more low-carbon pathway.
The report’s authors recognise the value of pricing carbon to some extent. They advocate a “low ring-fenced carbon tax” to fund low-carbon technologies. But a low tax is unlikely to make any real difference. Furthermore, their emphasis on funding for low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency is only a partial solution – and sets up a false dichotomy between emissions caps and support for technology and efficiency. It echoes the view of President Bush who rejected the Kyoto treaty. Having done so, he used his 2007 State of the Union address to offer the alternative view that “the way forward is through technology”.
Simply supporting cleaner, low-carbon technologies is not enough and is naive. Experience shows that pushing technologies with funding is just one part of a complex picture. There also needs to be a market for these technologies so that businesses and individuals adopt them. Markets for low-carbon technologies need to be created through a combination of carbon prices and regulations. Without them, a lot of good technology investment will go to waste.
The emphasis on energy efficiency in the report is welcome, but not thought through. Almost all assessments of climate mitigation pathways conclude that energy efficiency should be done first because it saves us money. However, making energy production and use more efficient is not as easy as it seems, and can have unintended consequences. The “rebound effect” happens because the savings are used for other energy-consuming activities. This seldom makes energy efficiency a waste of time, but emissions caps are needed to limit such rebounds.
Caps on emissions are therefore a vital component of a successful deal at Copenhagen. Without this and action on other crucial issues such as finance and technology, leading developing countries will not sign up – and will refuse to make commitments of their own. There are some positive signs. Good progress is being made in bilateral talks between the US and China about the conditions under which China could be brought into a new deal. Gordon Brown’s recent proposals on finance and technology have been widely welcomed in the developing world. We should support these initiatives while being critical when progress is too slow or lacks ambition. Rejecting emissions caps in favour of an exclusive emphasis on cleaner technologies is simplistic and will not work.
• Jim Watson is director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex