At its heart, much of the debate over climate change deals with just one divisive and vexing question: How big should cuts in carbon emissions be?
This narrow focus makes the debate unconstructive. Everybody wants to prevent global warming, and the real question is: How can we do that best?
We should be open to other ways to stop warming — such as cutting carbon emissions in the future instead of now, or focusing on reducing emissions of other greenhouse gases. Global warming will create significant problems, so carbon reductions offer significant benefits. Cutting carbon emissions, however, requires a reduction in the basic energy use that underpins modern society, so it will also mean significant costs.
Prominent climate economist Richard Tol of Hamburg University has analyzed the benefits and costs of cutting carbon now versus cutting it in the future. Cutting early will cost US$17.8 trillion, whereas cutting later will cost just US$2 trillion.
Nonetheless, the reduction in carbon dioxide concentration — and hence temperature — in 2100 will be greater from the future reductions. Cutting emissions now is much more expensive, because there are few, expensive alternatives to fossil fuels. Our money simply doesn’t buy as much as it will when green energy sources are more cost-efficient.
Tol strikingly shows that grand promises of drastic, immediate carbon cuts — reminiscent of the call for 80 percent reductions by mid-century that some politicians and lobbyists make — are an incredibly expensive way of doing very little good. All the academic models show that, even if possible, limiting the increase in global temperature to 2ºC, as promised by the EU and the G8, would cost a phenomenal 12.9 percent of GDP by the end of the century. This would be the equivalent of imposing a cost of more than US$4,000 on each inhabitant every year, by the end of the century. Yet the damage avoided would likely amount to only US$700 per inhabitant.
The real cost of ambitious, early and large carbon-cutting programs would be a reduction in growth — particularly damaging to the world’s poor — to the tune of around US$40 trillion a year. The costs would also come much sooner than the benefits and persist much longer. For every dollar that the world spends on this grand plan, the avoided climate damage would only be worth two cents.
It would be smarter to act cautiously by implementing a low carbon tax of about US$0.5 per tonne and increase it gradually through the century. This would not cut carbon emissions spectacularly, but nor would it be a spectacular waste of public funds. Each dollar would avoid US$1.51 of global warming damage — a respectable outcome.
Taxing fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions is a sensible part of the solution to climate change, but it is not the only or best way to prevent warming. There are other ways to cut carbon from the atmosphere. One of these is protecting forests, since deforestation accounts for 17 percent of emissions. If we are serious about grand promises to keep global temperature rises below 2ºC, we obviously need to find ways of making this cheaper. Brent Sohngen at Ohio State University points out that forests could be important: Including forestry in the control of greenhouse gases could reduce costs somewhat.
Moreover, although politicians focus nearly exclusively on cutting carbon emissions, carbon dioxide is not the only gas that causes warming. The second-biggest culprit is methane.
Cutting methane is cheaper than cutting carbon. And because methane is a much shorter-lived gas than carbon dioxide, we can prevent some of the worst of short-term warming through its mitigation. Agricultural production accounts for half of anthropogenic methane, but wastewater systems, landfills and coal mining also create the gas. Professor Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research argues that spending US$14 billion to US$30 billion to reduce methane would create benefits — from the reduction in warming — between 1.4 and three times higher.
We could also place a bigger focus on reducing black carbon, considered responsible for as much as 40 percent of current net warming and one-third of Arctic melting. Black carbon is essentially the soot produced by diesel emissions and — in developing countries — the burning of organic matter to cook food and stay warm. It can be eliminated with cleaner fuels and new cooking technologies.
Doing so would yield other benefits as well. Sooty pollution from indoor fires claims several million lives each year, so reducing black carbon would be a lifesaver. A team of economists led by David Montgomery estimates that spending US$359 million could realistically slash 19 percent of black carbon emissions. This would have a significant cooling impact on the planet, and would save 200,000 lives from pollution. The net annual benefits would run into several billion US dollars, which equates to US$3.60 in avoided climate damage for each dollar spent.
Costs and benefits matter. The best solution to climate change achieves the most good for the lowest cost. With this as our starting point, it is clear that a narrow focus on short-term carbon emission cuts is flawed. The most pertinent question of all is: Why don’t we choose a solution to global warming that will actually work?
Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School.
COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE
In a Facebook post on Wednesday last week, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Taipei City Councilor Hsu Chiao-hsin (徐巧芯) wrote: “The KMT must fall for Taiwan to improve.’ Allow me to ask the question again: Is this really true?” It matters not how many times Hsu asks the question, my answer will always be the same: “Yes, the KMT must be toppled for Taiwan to improve.” In the lengthy Facebook post, titled “What were those born in the 1980s guilty of?” Hsu harked back to the idealistic aspirations of the 2014 Sunflower movement before heaping opprobrium on the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP)
The scuffle between Chinese embassy staffers in Fiji and a Taiwanese diplomat at a Republic of China (ROC) Double Ten National Day celebration has turned into a public relations opportunity for the government, Beijing and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Although the incident occurred on Oct. 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) downplayed it, only for the story to be picked up by the foreign media, forcing the ministry to respond. The public and opposition parties asked why the government had failed to remonstrate more strongly in the first instance. It is still unclear whether the ministry missed a trick
US President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, former US vice president Joe Biden, are holding their final debate tonight. In their foreign policy debate, China is sure to be a major issue of contention for the two candidates. Here are several questions the moderator should pose to the candidates: For both: In the first televised US presidential debates in 1960, then-Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and his Republican counterpart, Richard Nixon, were asked whether the US should intervene if communist China attacked Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Kennedy said no, unless the main island of Taiwan was also attacked.
For most of us, the colorful, otherworldly marinescapes of coral reefs are as remote as the alien landscapes of the moon. We rarely, if ever, experience these underwater wonderlands for ourselves — we are, after all, air-breathing, terrestrial creatures mostly cocooned in cities. It is easy not to notice the perilous state they are in: We have lost 50 percent of coral reefs in the past 20 years and more than 90 percent are expected to die by 2050, a presentation at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego, California, earlier this year showed. As the oceans heat further and