Bjørn Lomborg

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Discipline envy

Richard Black, the BBC’s online environment correspondent, attracted attention when he noticed that almost all climate sceptics are men. Instead, he might have chosen to comment that many of them were social scientists with leanings towards economics. Coincidentally, economics is populated by males. It is only this year that the first woman won the subject’s Nobel prize, and her work would not be regarded as part of the subject by many academic purists. Sceptics Nigel Lawson, Steven Levitt, Bjørn Lomborg, and others all think about the world as economists. That’s probably more important than that they are male.

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Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that promised aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. The reality has not matched the commitments made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Perhaps politicians intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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Why is humanity finding it difficult to take action on climate change?
Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that included promises to pursue aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. Broadly speaking, the reality has not matched the promises made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Politicians may intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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Is Kyoto dead?

(Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, ‘Time to ditch Kyoto’, Nature, 449, 973-5 (25 October 2007); URL: http://tinyurl.com/ys8flx [accessed 27 October 2007].)

This short article has attracted attention around the world. Its thesis is that Kyoto is a dangerous distraction. It hasn’t worked, and its successor will not succeed either if it follows the same principles. Kyoto’s proponents have ignored its failures and exaggerated its effectiveness. It is worse than useless because it has stifled discussion of alternatives. However, their thesis is buttressed by two observations which are not accurate. They say that the International Energy Agency is predicting that world energy demand will double by 2030. It does not; it predicts a rise of just over 50%. Second, the paper states that the BP annual Statistical Review says that a likely global carbon price will not be high enough to induce major change. It does not; BP might think this, but its latest Statistical Review (referenced in the text) does not say this.

Like generals fighting the previous war, Kyoto’s originators based its design on the successful treaties on ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear weapons. These problems were much more amenable to global regulation and the sharing of burdens was much more politically feasible. The authors of this paper suggest that policy makers should move away from treaties that try to put a cap on world emissions.

Prins and Rayner say that we need new techniques for getting a grip on the carbon problem. And, second, we need to work out how we need to adapt when severe climate changes arrive.

Their proposals for replacements for Kyoto are short and unspecific. In summary, they believe that the world needs ‘genuine’ emissions markets, not artificial constructs like Kyoto, and these markets must evolve gradually from local experiments. They mention approvingly some of the voluntary carbon markets that have grown up in the US. I think this faith in small informal markets is wholly misplaced. What possible reason would persuade a major polluter to participate?

The authors tell us we need to invest more in public R+D in clean technologies. In this they mirror Bjørn Lomborg (see the discussion of his book Cool It in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #3). They support messy public policies rather than ones that go for what they disparagingly describe as ‘elegant’ solutions. They see a role for measures such as mandatory technology standards (perhaps such as mile per gallon regulation on cars). The ideas they present are sketchy and unconvincing.

Many of us think that Kyoto and its successor are worth supporting as one of a package of measures. It is, after all, the only measure that we have currently got other than European ETS. Does it distract from finding other tools? I don’t see any evidence for the authors’ pessimism. Can it be merged with other global and local measures? Yes it can. No one pretends Kyoto is perfect, but because it tried to distribute the pain of emissions reduction reasonably fairly, it was a start. We can build on it; we need not destroy it.

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Bjørn Lomborg, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, is the most formidable critic of those who think that cutting climate-changing gases is the most important problem the world faces. He made his name with ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ and his new book continues his drive to get the world to see global warming as just one of the world’s important problems.

Lomborg believes climate change is happening, and that mankind’s activities are responsible. But he tells that we shouldn’t do much about global warming because the costs are very high and the benefits are limited and far-off. Like most books written by partisans in this impassioned debate, much of what he says can be questioned.

Nevertheless, this is an extremely valuable polemic: it stresses repeatedly that taking action to stop climate change may have very high short-term costs. If by clumsy attempts to hold down emissions we stunt the prospects for global economic growth, we may do more harm to the world’s poor than would be inflicted by climate change. It needs to be said time and time again that disease and malnutrition are killing far more people today than climate change. We are making progress diminishing the impact of these scourges. Despite what you sometimes read in the newspapers, world food supply and life expectancy are improving. Panic-stricken action on climate change must not be allowed to halt this progress. We need a rational assessment of whether it is best to spend money on slowing climate change or to whether we would achieve better effects from focusing resources elsewhere.

Bjørn Lomborg is an able debater with a passionate interest in his subject. But he overstates his case, focuses on only parts of the issue and avoids any discussion of a possible future acceleration of global warming. Even with these weaknesses Cool It needs to be part of the continuing debate on how to respond to the climate threat without crippling the poorest economies of the world.

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Many agricultural crops can be turned into fuels. Diesel substitutes can be made from the oil in seeds. The sugars in cereals and tubers can be fermented into ethanol.

At first examination, biofuels look as though they might significantly reduce carbon emissions. An agricultural crop takes carbon from the air through the photosynthesis process. When the harvest is processed, and the output used as a fuel, the carbon returns to the atmosphere. Proponents sometimes said that agricultural crops make ‘carbon-neutral’ fuels.

Over the last two years, this simple optimism has been eroded. Two further blows have fallen in recent weeks:

  • Nobel winner Paul Crutzen and his team showed that we may have been underestimating greenhouse gas emissions from using fertiliser. The work suggested that emissions of nitrous oxide may be far higher than previously thought.
  • Richard Doornbusch, who is attached the OECD, wrote a paper which said: ‘The conclusion must be that the potential of the current technologies of choice – ethanol and biodiesel – to deliver a major contribution to the energy demands of the transport sector without compromising food prices and the environment is very limited.’

The balance of evidence is that biofuels produced from crops grown in temperate climates save very small amounts of emissions. Moreover, the land used for biofuel crops could be used for food or biomass for energy. In tropical lands, biofuel crops may save carbon emissions. But the energy policies of richer countries may be incentivising tropical farmers to cut down forest to grow fuel crops. The effect of this almost certainly outweighs any emissions reductions.

Despite the increasingly prevalent view that biofuels are little or no improvement on fossil fuels, both the EU and the US are obliging retailers to increase the percentage of motor fuels derived from agricultural sources. This is a mistake.

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