In November 2008, the UK’s Climate Change Act was passed, committing the country to an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. Politicians, NGOs, journalists and activists welcomed the target, but to meet it many far-reaching changes in our working- and day-to-day lives will be necessary, the extent of which is rarely discussed.
To put it bluntly: is the carbon goal achievable? Earlier this month, the science policy researcher Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, gave a talk at Aston University in Birmingham, outlining his view that the goal is unreachable, and in fact has already failed.
In early 2007, the government’s Draft Climate Change Bill had proposed a 60 per cent emissions reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 (1), with ‘carbon budgets’ presented every five years by an independent panel. This proposal had its critics. The Conservative Party announced that, according to its research, the target ought to be an 80 per cent cut (2). Following on, the Liberal Democrats argued that by 2050 the UK should be zero-carbon and should have banned nuclear energy (3). The three main parties each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, yet produced substantially different targets.
In October 2007, the problem of this game of politics-by-numbers was resolved. An independent panel would decide what the UK’s commitment to emissions reduction should be (4). This panel – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – was set up the following February. The CCC chair Lord Adair Turner was joined by two more economists, Professor Michael Grubb and Dr Samuel Fankhauser; the former president of the Royal Society, Lord Bob May; mathematical physicist, Professor Jim Skea; and the committee’s only climate scientist, Sir Brian Hoskins.
The CCC was asked to prepare advice for parliament by October 2008, ahead of the Climate Change Bill’s reading in the House of Commons. It took the unelected committee just seven months to decide the terms and targets of the next 42 years of UK energy policy. The committee’s report advising parliament to set targets of 80 per cent cuts by 2050, and between 34 per cent and 42 per cent by 2020, was published on 1 December, five days after the Climate Change Act was passed. MPs voting for the act could have had no idea what it was they were voting for.
The rate of decarbonisation required to meet these targets would, according to Roger Pielke, be ‘more aggressive than has ever been documented in any developed country at any time ever’. But isn’t this the ‘drastic action’ that environmentalists have been demanding, and politicians have been promising, for many years now? The problem is the difference between goals and action. ‘One of the implications is that the UK would have to be as carbon-efficient as France within the next decade’, Pielke tells me. France’s energy policy gives us a good benchmark for understanding the scale of the numerical goals in more practical terms. To become that efficient in that time frame is equivalent to building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015. ‘There’s a fine line between aspirational goals and fictional goals’, says Pielke, ‘but from a political and societal perspective, it’s just not going to happen. We should be rethinking the process that’s been put in place to achieve these goals.’
Pielke’s criticism is that the Climate Change Act has created targets without sufficient thought about how they will be realised. To demonstrate this, he returns to the numbers, and uses a mathematical formula known as the Kaya Identity to analyse the Climate Change Act’s targets. This model reveals the degrees of freedom at the government’s disposal with the expression:
CO2 Emissions = Population x Per Capita GDP x Energy Intensity x Carbon Intensity
Using this expression, we can examine each component to see what it tells us about possible policy options.
Population: Even among the greenest greens, there is recognition that the regulation of human fertility to control population growth is a non-starter. Members of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust, such as Crispin Tickell and Jonathon Porritt, stress instead the possibility of engineering social norms instead of laws. But that’s a difficult thing to incorporate into any emissions reduction strategy, and is unlikely to yield any result in terms of emissions over the next 100 years – it takes a while for the effect of people not having babies to get noticed.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): If population control is off the agenda, can emissions be controlled through economics? ‘I don’t see the restriction of economic activity as being on the cards’, says Pielke, ‘not in Britain. Not in the States. Not in China. Not anywhere.’
Is GDP the best way to measure economic progress? Greens have argued for some time that there are better ways to measure progress than GDP growth, for instance by redistributing wealth within an economy limited by environmental regulations and improving measures of ‘subjective wellbeing’, rather than expecting growth to deliver marginal material improvements at the bottom.
But while this kind of ‘happiness agenda’ advocated by Green MEP Caroline Lucas, and by the New Economics Foundation, achieves prominence within debates about climate change, such ideas have yet to have much of an impact in mainstream politics and the public’s imagination. Such radical proposals, in spite of the urgency of arguments in favour of action to prevent an ecological apocalypse, remain deeply unpopular. ‘There’s not going to be any success in long-term emissions reductions that have a basis in dramatically limiting economic growth’, says Pielke. ‘It doesn’t pass the reality test.’
Energy and carbon intensity: The two remaining factors – energy and carbon intensity – present similar obstacles to any emissions reduction goal. We could reduce energy intensity by limiting the opportunities available to people, equivalent to increasing dependence on manual labour. This has been proposed. Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Arts published details of its three-year feasibility study of ‘personal carbon budgets’ (5) – politically correct vernacular for ‘carbon rationing’.
But before the RSA’s study had concluded, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) headed off fears that the government was considering such a retrogressive and unpopular policy. Defra announced that because it was expensive, rather than because the policy was wrong, ‘we will not be pursuing this option further at this stage’ – even if the government reserves the right to revive the idea later on (6). ‘Policymakers recognise that technology alone isn’t going to do the job’, says Pielke. ‘They’re going to have to look at putting restrictions on economic activity.’
In setting targets, Pielke says, we have got things backwards, focusing on top-down policy, rather than bottom-up technology. There is no precedent for achieving the rate of decarbonisation to which the UK is now committed. And while the target of 80 per cent reduction on 1990 levels of emissions satisfies the need for a goal, questions about its legitimacy arise when we consider that population is variable. What’s right and proper for a population of 60million isn’t necessarily right or proper for a population of 70million. Like population, GDP is also variable. If emissions are related to GDP, then, necessarily, we might be forced to abandon potential growth for the sake of meeting targets if Britain, perhaps miraculously, were to experience a period of growing wealth. Conversely, why should policymakers take credit for reducing emissions during an economic recession?
Moreover, the Climate Change Act will, according to the CCC, ‘only’ cost between one per cent and two per cent of GDP. That is relatively unproblematic if the economy is growing at five or six per cent per year, but it could make the difference between growth and contraction, or between recession and full-blown depression.
Pielke says: ‘For us to best deal with challenges of policy, we’ve got to know what kind of problems we’re up against. We know how to start the process of decarbonising the economy. But we don’t know how fast we can go, and we don’t know what the end point is. The Climate Change Act is exactly the opposite way that we should think about decarbonisation. It starts with the targets and timetables, and then says “well, how do we do that?” Instead it should start with “what can we do and how fast can we go, and what does that imply for targets and timetables?”’