Azara Blog: Roger Pielke Jr says that UK emissions strategy is fundamentally flawed

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Date published: 2009/02/13

The BBC says:

The UK's plans to cut emissions by 80% by 2050 are fundamentally flawed and almost certain to fail, according to a US academic.

Roger Pielke Jr, a science policy expert, said the UK government had underestimated the magnitude of the task to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

He added that it would be more effective to "decarbonise" economic growth rather than focus on targets.

Professor Pielke made his comments during a speech at Aston University.

Professor Pielke said that a country's greenhouse gas trajectory was determined by three factors: economic growth; population growth; and changes in technology.

This meant, the academic from the University of Colorado suggested, that if people migrate to the UK and the economy boomed, it would be harder for politicians to achieve emissions cuts based on historic levels.

He calculated that the combined effects of possible population growth and economic growth could oblige the UK to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon intensity of energy at an unprecedented annual rate of 5.4%.

Conversely, if migrants left the UK and the economy slumped, there would be a downturn in emissions, for which politicians would claim unearned credit.

Professor Pielke suggested that a more effective measure would be to track the emissions produced for every unit of wealth generated by individuals. In other words: CO2 per capita GNP.

This would focus efforts on delivering the technological change needed to reduce emissions, he believed.

However, Professor Pielke's approach also raises a number of questions.

First, there is no guarantee that a change in measurement will provoke the scale of change the author believes is required.

Moreover, his alternative system would reward governments that shifted to service-based economies and moved their emissions "offshore", creating an illusionary cut in emissions.

This difficulty could be overcome with a more complex measure based on CO2 per capita GNP and would include imported "embedded" emissions.

But that has problems too: in modern supply chains: a computer may contain parts from 20 different countries and manufacturers regularly change suppliers, so it will often be impossible to keep an accurate tally of embedded carbon.

It could also be too complex for many people to grasp easily.
Professor Pielke's intervention was rejected by economist Terry Barker, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Pielke's analysis does not tell us how fast an economy can de-carbonise, just how much it has done so in the past when there has been a weak carbon price," he said.

"[His] proposals are diversionary; they fail to emphasise the scale of the no-regrets options available to reduce emissions at net benefit and they do not include potential changes in regulations on vehicles and power stations that could lead to rapid de-carbonisation."

Professor Tom Burke from Imperial College London added: "These conclusions are a very marginal addition to our knowledge.

"The argument in his paper amounts to saying that getting 80% will be difficult. This is hardly news.

"There is nothing that supports the contention that the Climate Change Act will fail or that there are flaws in its basic conception or that there is an alternative approach which is better.

"No-one has said this would be easy."

Well it's hardly surprising that lots of people would jump on what Pielke has said. For one thing, they would never like the CO2 per capita GNP measure, because it means that it is fine to continue with economic growth as long as you are becoming more emissions efficient at the same time, and also, most countries do well on this measure (even the United States). For another thing, these people have spent a lot of political effort getting the UK government to sign on to this allegedly legally binding commitment to cut emissions by 80% by 2050, and they are hardly going to want to admit that they have screwed up big time.

The article completely misleads with the statement that Pielke's "alternative system would reward governments that shifted to service-based economies and moved their emissions "offshore", creating an illusionary cut in emissions." Although true, that shift has nothing to do with Pielke's particular way of measuring progress, it also affects the approach he is criticising, namely just looking at a country's CO2 emissions. The US and Europe have shifted huge amounts of CO2 production offshore the last two decades towards countries like China. This is one reason the UK will meet its Kyoto targets.

And it is always amusing to see some people insist that in the rich west one should consider just total CO2 emissions but for the rest of the world one should instead be considering CO2 per capita. Funnily enough, both of these measures have their own flaws, which the BBC chooses to ignore when criticising Pielke's suggestion.

So using total CO2 as the measure means, for example, that China should be cutting emissions by quite a lot. (Although it is not totally obvious because the current accounting system for emissions is fundamentally flawed since it considers production rather than consumption.) And using total CO2 as a measure means that if the UK splits into four countries then each country automatically ought to get the same as the existing quota for the UK, so the overall quota multiplies by four.

And using CO2 per capita as the measure means that countries which are irresponsible and continue to allow population growth will garner more and more overall CO2 quota for themselves. This is plainly unacceptable, especially given that population is the main driver behind the world's environmental problems.

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