Forget targets

The big picture on climate change is one of the composition of the atmosphere and the thermodynamic balance of the planet. It is a very complex and long-term story, some of which requires considerable scientific knowledge to grasp. The basics of it come out to this:

  • Humans are changing the climate.
  • Further change is profoundly threatening for humanity.
  • We need to stabilize how much greenhouse gas is in the atmosphere, and do so at a safe level.
  • This requires fast, deep cuts.

A lot of attention has rightly focused on emission targets and timelines: where we need to be by when to achieve the kind of outcomes we want. The trouble with this debate is that it is largely artificial. Candidate X might say: “Cut to 50% below 2000 levels by 2050” and Candidate Y might say: “Cut to 65% below 2000 levels by 2050.” The difference between the two outcomes would be important for the climate. At the same time, the difference between the candidates is actually much less about the targets and much more about the means of implementing them. Candidate Y might say: “Voluntary measures, technological progress, and magical future technologies will do the job” while Candidate X might say: “We will limit total emissions from our economy to 3% below this year’s level next year. We will charge firms for the right to emit this much. We will use that money to foster a transition towards a low-carbon economy.” Needless to say, the results of each plan will differ significantly by the time you get to 2050.

The critical thing right now is to bend the path of global emissions. Rather than moving ever-upward, it needs to turn downward and start the long decline towards a low-carbon economy. Achieving that is all about immediate measures, not about emission projections that delay most of the reductions for decades. While it is certainly cheaper to cut a notional tonne of emissions ten years out, it is also the case that starting the transition will be more difficult than maintaining it. As such, it would be good to see states and political parties competing over who will cut emissions more in the immediate future, rather than across timespans during which today’s leaders will be enjoying their retirements.

Of course, the political risks of cutting emissions now are comparatively large. When it becomes evident what that will involve, it might prove expensive and politically unpopular. Protecting the welfare of present and future generations might evoke the wrath of voters during the next election. Unfortunately but honestly, no politician can be expected to show such bravery. Even so, there is an opportunity to recast the narrative. Firstly, we need to stress that this transition simply needs to occur. The alternative to acting now is simply delaying to the point where the transition will cost more and the impacts of climate change will be more severe. Secondly, this is an epic opportunity for humanity and for individual states. We can finally move beyond a post-Industrial Revolution economy based on constantly borrowing from the welfare of future generations. We can create states and a global society than run on sustainably produced climate-neutral energy.

The action required to start doing so is needed immediately. Choose someone who promises to change something by next year, and turf them out if they don’t.

Comments? Counter-arguments?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Forget targets”

  1. But while the Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party have all accepted the international benchmark date of 1990, the Conservatives have chosen a baseline of 2006. Because Canadian emissions rose between 1990 and 2006 by nearly one-third, that means that – even if successful – the Harper Conservatives would reduce emissions by only three per cent from 1990 levels.

    Even that, however, is too optimistic, according to the Jaccard report’s conclusioin:

    “… it is highly unlikely that the policies of the government of Canada will achieve the target of reducing national emissions 20% below 2006 levels by 2020. The lack of an economy-wide emissions price and the allowance for 100% offsets for industrial emitters make it highly likely that emissions will be significantly higher than target levels in 2020 and indeed might even be close to today’s levels. Since the government claims that it is intent on achieving its 2020 emissions reduction target, it is difficult to understand why it does not immediately convert the intensity cap to an absolute cap and eliminate or severely reduce the offset provision. It also needs to extend its cap to cover all emissions in the economy.”

  2. Are emission targets ever really ‘science-based’?
    Or are we playing a dangerous game of self-deception?
    Posted by Ken Johnson

    “The objective reality is that climate legislation is and always has been driven primarily by politics and cost-consciousness, and only secondarily by scientific realities. But does it do any harm to pretend that policies are “science-based”? Yes, it does.

    The pretense lulls us into a self-deceptive sense of security, thinking that no effort or expense need be expended to surpass mandated caps or targets because their “scientific basis” ensures “environmental certainty.” For example, there is no perceived justification for a meaningful price floor to stabilize carbon trading prices, because low prices (e.g. the recent price collapse in the EU ETS, or the RGGI’s anemic $3/ton price) are an indication that environmental goals are being achieved at the lowest possible cost.”

  3. Too much emphasis on emission targets: Chu

    LONDON (Reuters) – Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said on Tuesday that setting exact targets for carbon dioxide emissions had led to an “over-obsession” with numbers, as the United States moved closer to overhauling its energy policy.

    The comment came less than a week after a congressional panel approved President Barack Obama’s landmark draft bill on climate change, bringing it closer to debate in Congress.

    “There was a great deal of discussion on the Kyoto targets, and I’m not really sure which fraction of the countries that took part in that actually met their targets,” Chu, a Nobel laureate for physics, said at a conference in London. “In terms of the targets, whether it’s 17 percent or 20 or 25 percent, I think there’s perhaps … an over-obsession on these percentages.”

    The Waxman-Markey Bill calls for cutting U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 — far short of the European Union’s target of bringing emissions to 20 to 30 percent below their 1990 level by the end of next decade.

  4. At least – until a few months ago – government targets for cutting greenhouse gases had the virtue of being wrong. They were the wrong targets, by the wrong dates, and they bore no relationship to the stated aim of preventing more than two degrees of global warming. But they used a methodology which even their sternest critics (myself included) believed could be improved until it delivered the right results: the cuts merely needed to be raised and accelerated.

    Three papers released earlier this year changed all that. The first one, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, set the scene. It showed that the climate change we cause today “is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop”. Around 40% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans this century will remain in the atmosphere until at least the year 3000*. Moreover, thanks to the peculiar ways in which the oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, global average temperatures are likely to “remain approximately constant … until the end of the millennium despite zero further emissions”.

  5. “Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil fuel emissions and to nearly phase out fossil fuel emissions by the middle of the century. Most governments are saying that they recognize these imperatives. And they say that they will meet these objectives with a Kyoto-like approach. Ladies and gentleman, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover, they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets that they have nominally accepted.

    Figure 26 shows that if coal emissions are phased out entirely and unconventional fossil fuels are prohibited, fossil fuel emissions in 2050 will be somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of emissions in 2008. In other words, the reserves of conventional oil and gas are already enough to take emissions up to the maximum lebels that governments have agreed on. The IPCC estimate, in which we exploit only the most readily available oil and gas, allows the possibility of getting emissions levels back to 350 ppm this century.”

    Hansen, James. Storms of My Grandchildren. p. 184-5 hardcover

  6. “This is the big distinction. When Jeff Simpson and I wrote our book, Hot Air, we had this checklist about how to see if you can trust your politicians at the end of the book, and one of them is, if they tell you about a target, and just talk about a target, then don’t trust them, because we’ve done that. We had a target for the year 2000 that Brian Mulroney set. We had a target for 2005 that Mulroney and then Jean Chrétien set. We had a target for 2010 that Chrétien set, the Kyoto target. Targets are meaningless. Don’t even look at targets.”

  7. Notice that I distinguish GHG targets from policies and costs. Political operatives long ago realized that some voters mistakenly equate the GHG target with the level of climate sincerity. Since each party in this election has a different target for 2030, this would make a naive voter’s choice simple. Most sincere are the Greens (60 per cent reduction), followed by the NDP (50), the Liberals (40) and the Conservatives (30).

    But as I explained in my 2020 book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, targets alone tell us nothing about climate sincerity. We need to know if the party has policies that will achieve its target, and we need to know if it’s being honest about the cost. The more ambitious the GHG target, the higher the cost, leaving less money for transitional help for middle- and low-income families, workers in hard-hit industries and Indigenous peoples.

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