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Should we implement the Kyoto Protocol?
'Lomborg's case against the Kyoto Protocol is based on flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions.'
Charles Secrett
director of Friends of the Earth
Professor Bjørn Lomborg's case against implementing the Kyoto Protocol is based on a number of flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions. Robust scepticism can be helpful, but fallacious reasoning needs to be exposed and rebutted.

First, Lomborg castigates IPCC climate model results because the models contain uncertainties. He asserts, with no evidence, that therefore future atmospheric temperatures will be much the same as previous centuries, and that low warming projections 'are much more likely'. The models do contain uncertainties, as the IPCC scientists themselves explicitly state, but their conclusions are very different to the good Professor's. As data on, and understanding of, climate systems and events improves over time, the uncertainties have lessened and the models' ability to replicate climate systems has strengthened.

The IPCC is hardly made up of a bunch of eco-radicals. The panel's 1050 scientists are drawn from the mainstream. Many work for or are funded by governments and corporations who have resisted early action to tackle climate pollution.

Yet the IPCC now concludes that it is at least 90 percent certain that the Earth's average surface temperature will warm between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. These increases are almost twice those predicted in their last report, five years ago. Sea levels are expected to rise, as the oceans in turn warm up and expand, within a 15 to 95 centimetre range 1 footnote reference.

This matters. The rate of increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) is the highest for at least 20,000 years, and present concentrations have not been exceeded for at least 420,000 years. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, atmospheric CO2 will be twice pre-industrial levels by 2030, and three times by 2100. A doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels is considered the upper limit of tolerable concentrations. In temperature terms, the 1990s was the warmest decade in a millennium, and the anticipated increases are without precedent during the past 10,000 years.

Just how dangerous can a few degrees hotter be? Lomborg himself believes that a 'warming of about 2 to 2.5 degrees C' is likely (though he gives no clues as to why). The present global temperature is only 3.5 degrees C warmer than during the last Ice Age, yet the planet is a completely different place to live. As the IPCC warns, small changes to average climate conditions can and have produced relatively large and sudden changes in the occurrence and frequency of extreme climate events, on global and local scales. That is why precautionary action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is justified - particularly as there are ways to do so that bring considerable economic and social benefits.

Lomborg makes much of the supposed economic costs of curbing carbon emissions, citing a figure of $4trillion. Ironically, having dismissed climate model projections as 'computer-aided story-telling', his economic arguments and belief in unregulated market solutions are based on an economic model, developed by Professor Nordhaus of Yale University, criticised by other economists as 'almost worthless' for climate policy-making. Nordhaus's neo-classical economic model rests on three fundamentally flawed assumptions. First, it assumes genuinely free market conditions, with perfect competition and where optimal growth occurs. Second, it assumes that technological progress occurs smoothly, automatically and independently of economic conditions and government policy-making. Third, it assumes that there is a fixed range of technological options for entrepreneurs to choose from, who will use all available information to make optimal choices. These assumptions are so staggeringly removed from real world political-economies as to be useless myth-making 2 footnote reference.

Lomborg ignores the considerable employment and other economic benefits that result from a progressive move to a low carbon economy, based on renewable energies and energy efficiency gains 3 footnote reference. He asserts that 'renewables - and especially solar power' will only become competitive with fossil fuels by 'mid-century'. Mainstream economists conservatively reckon that solar technology will be competitive by 2020; and that could be shortened significantly if the many hidden subsidies and in-built market advantage of fossil fuels were removed.

Developments like these are called 'no-regrets' responses, because they make economic, environmental and social sense even if climate change projections turn out to be exaggerated. Saving energy and cutting pollution cuts operating and management costs in the present-day, and generates wider benefits, such as technical innovation, increased competitiveness, new employment-generating companies and export opportunities (for example, from solar and hydrogen fuel-cell technologies, and off-shore wind and wave power). No wonder Denmark, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands and Britain are rushing to develop these industries.

Lomborg only understands emission-abatement policy in negative cost terms. For example, he sees carbon taxes, used to raise the price of fossil fuels, purely as financial costs that hamper economic activity. What he ignores is that crucial part of the emission curb case, which argues for these revenues to be recycled back as financial rewards and incentives for companies and households that invest in pollution reduction and clean technologies and fuels.

This hypothecation of pollution revenues can be used to lower costs in a number of ways: first, as tax credits or grants for companies that develop or use clean and efficient technologies and fuels; second, to reduce other types of company tax, such as employment taxes like National Insurance Contributions; third, as direct public sector investment in infrastructure and services, such as energy conservation programmes or modern public transport systems that create jobs, improve quality of life and lower running costs for households and firms 4 footnote reference.

Lomborg casually claims that 'global warming will not decrease food production...will not increase the impact of malaria or cause more deaths. It is even unlikely that it will cause more flood victims'. Tell that to the IPCC, which details the many possible threats and likely losses to the natural world, and rich and poor societies, from the anticipated droughts, floods, sea-level rise and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, which accompany climate change.

Unless significant emission cuts are made, the outlook is dire. Take water, as just one of many problematic examples. In rich-world regions like Europe, where supplies are adequate, more frequent, heavier rainfalls are expected, increasing the risk of disruptive river floods. Britain has not coped well with its recent inundations. But lower rainfall and water shortages are anticipated in arid areas like northern and sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia and Australia. Some 1.7billion poor people live in these water-stressed regions. Their numbers are projected to rise to 5billion by 2025. Droughts mean failed crops, and food shortages. The IPCC predicts a general reduction in crop yields in most tropical and sub-tropical regions, including across much of Africa and southern Asia.

The IPCC also warns of greatly increased risk from the spread of insect-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, and water-transmitted diseases, like cholera. Increases in heat-waves, exacerbated by humidity and air pollution, will lead to rises in heat-related deaths and illnesses in the North as in much of the South. People most at risk include the elderly, sick and young, living in towns and cities. With a mid-range sea-level rise of 40 centimetres, and the anticipated increase in violent storms, the number of victims of coastal storm surges may to rise to between 75 and 200 million, depending on preventative measures. Tens of millions of vulnerable people already live below sea-level in countries like Bangladesh and Egypt. Climate change disruptions are expected to cause large numbers of people in poor countries to flee afflicted areas.

Lomborg rejects Kyoto cuts, unless done through an emissions trading system. That certainly has a place in the policy response as environmentalists recognise. But emissions trading cannot substitute for targeted regulation and fiscal adjustments to energy, transport and land-use markets, because of the market failures described above. Time will tell who is right: sceptics like Lomborg, or conservative scientists like the IPCC. Knowing what we do about their respective reasoning and methodologies, the sensible bet would be to back the IPCC.

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Professor Bjørn Lomborg
Author of The Skeptical Environmentalist
Dr Mike Hulme
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia
Commissioned responses
John Gillott
Margaret Mogford
Philip Stott
Charles Secrett
Dr David Viner
Peter Sammonds
Reader responses
View the list of responses

Useful resources
Climate change: scientific certainties and uncertainties

Climate change 2001: the scientific basis

UK government publications on climate change
Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions

Guide to the New Kyoto Rulebook
Lycos News

1. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis (Volume 1); Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Volume 2); Mitigation (Volume 3)
IPCC, 2001

2. 'How Economists Have Misjudged Global Warming'
Robert U Ayres, World Watch Volume 14, No 5, September/October, 2001

3. 'Making the Environment Work'
Charles Secrett, The Employment Policy Institute Economic Report, Volume 14 No 4, September 1999

4. Ecological Tax Reform, Environmental Policy and the Competitiveness of British Industry
Dr Paul Ekins, 1998

Fiscal Incentives to Overcome Barriers to Investment in Environmental Technology
Environmental Industries Commission, 1998

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