How to deal with climate change: smart policies vs. populism

In Paris in December 2015, world leaders made feeble carbon-cutting promises, and then declared grandiosely that their commitments would keep temperature rises “well below 2ºC” and even suggested that rises could be kept to 1,5ºC. This extravagant claim is a misstatement. Based on current CO2 emissions, achieving the 1,5ºC target requires that the entire planet entirely abandons using fossil fuels in 4 years. That is never going to happen.

Thank you very much for attending this new event of Euromind, the platform where I have intended to bring the scientific and the political sphere closer together.

Climate change is one of the world’s main problems.

There is solid evidence on the role of CO2 on the greenhouse effect. I will cite just two: in 1859, John Tyndall demonstrated that the presence of traces of CO2 or water vapour in a tube’s gas mixture significantly increased its temperature. And more recently, data from NASA satellites show that the Earth emits heat to the outside except at the wavelengths absorbed by CO2.

CO2, as well as water vapour and other molecules, absorb radiation, contributing to an increase in temperature and climate change. From here it follows that the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more the temperature will increase due to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect has a very necessary regulatory function: without molecules that cause the greenhouse effect, the nights would be frosty and the days burning, as we see on the planet Mercury. With too much CO2, the planet could become a hell like Venus. Life on Earth, therefore, requires a balance between these two extremes.

To doubt these facts is not to respect scientific objectivity. It is dangerous and absurd.

If the problem of climate change was reduced to the realm of the natural sciences, it would be resolved. It is, however, a much more complex issue. Much of the increase in atmospheric CO2 is due to economic activity. As fossil fuels are so cheap, their consumption has allowed more and more individuals to leave the situation of extreme poverty. It is the main remedy for poverty, and that explains the increase in life expectancy around the world, and that people are living better and better.

The problem of climate change is therefore not unique to the natural sciences, but also concerns the economy and, of course, politics. And in the social sciences there are no unique solutions, nor are these perfect. For example, there is a choice to criminalize the use of fossil fuels, but this decision is at the expense of the most vulnerable individuals in society and also in developing countries.

For this reason the political debate is essential and necessary. It is a debate that has been completely absent in parliament. How is it possible, for example, that there has not been a single political initiative on nuclear energy, despite the role it could play in solving this problem?

Despite the stakes, the debates are more about emotions than about reasons. See, without going any further, the ecological catastrophe, whose preachers are getting to the point of using children to mobilize the crowds. If we accept that this is a serious problem and one in which we are going into the future, I do not understand why it is intended that children are the only ones who can legitimately express themselves.

Another less subtle way to prevent debate is to throw the accusation of “climate sceptics” or “negationist” at anyone who questions political decisions. Certainly there are individuals like the president of the United States, Mr. Trump, who think climate change is a hoax created by China to destroy their country’s economy. During these past days I have received messages from people outraged for having invited Dr. Lomborg and calling him a climate sceptic. I can already tell you that he is not, so all those who have come here because they feel insulted and want to express their indignation, have come to the wrong place.

As I said, there is no point in questioning the facts. In my years as an MEP, I have found that the European Parliament generally has little respect for scientific opinion. Most politicians have not cared at all that European scientific agencies and from the rest of the world ensure that genetically modified organisms are completely safe, nor do they take any notice of the scientific guarantees offered by certain pesticides if for ideological reasons they have decided that they should be banned. That is why I am not pleased that so many defenders of science and reason suddenly appear. For this type of politician, science is an instrument they use when it is useful to them. And on the subject of climate change, it is good for many to describe as a negationist anyone who wants to discuss the different ways to tackle this problem. In order to promote this type of debate, I encouraged Euromind, and to that purpose I invited Dr. Lomborg to speak here.

And now I give the floor to my friend Alejo Vidal-Quadras, who was vice president of the European Parliament and is physicist himself, who will act as presenter and moderator of the event. No one better for such an event.

Reply to B. Lomborg’s presentation on Climate Change, by Stephan Trioreau

Attending the presentation of Professor Lomborg on climate change made me witness of a partially emotional debate on the effects of climate change and the presented interpretation, basically of “non”-effects. I try to comment based on memory but without the slides available, hence this is not an in-depth analysis but reflects my understanding of some major elements and their way of interpretation. The presentation consisted mainly of data put in reference to quantified consequences of climate change or its mitigation effort to global GDP. This is certainly a controversial approach but can still be considered a useful basis to discuss the topic particularly when dealing with climate change “skeptical parties”.

As for any (macro-) economic model it is fair to say that as long as one does not know in detail how it is built and what the sensitivities are with respect to the variation of several input-parameters it is impossible to assess its intrinsic soundness. This becomes even more true when considering secondary/collateral effects of a measure and its assumed cost or benefit.

To given an example, in mobility, avoiding the emissions of CO2 by phasing out the use of fossil fuel driven combustion engines and by substituting those with electric ones powered either by stored electricity or hydrogen or else has the secondary effect of enhancing significantly the air quality in cities as not only the CO2 emissions are avoided but also dozens of noxious molecules (NOx, dust,…). It is understood that the amount of investment needed for changing the technology to non-emitting mobility is attributed to “the cost of avoiding climate change” but it seems that neither the investment itself is counted for contributing to growth of global GDP as such nor the inherent secondary effects like reducing the cost of medical treatment due to health problems linked to bad air-quality in cities are taken as benefit. Also the presentation does not integrate the potential benefit of these new technologies to be source of wealth when sold for decades to come. Again, as mentioned in the beginning, a detailed analysis of the underlying calculation is not possible.

Rebuking “en bloc” the arguments given would however only raise the acceptance level of the opinion expressed as some aspects of the presentation could certainly be considered pertinent. It is the selection of data and the intrinsic sensitivity of linked effects which often make a model either coherent or misleading.To me, intensive discussions down to the details of the figures/ratios presented would serve the cause best and it seemed that Professor Lomborg was open for discussion and arguments, hence one could do this at a later stage. I believe that most arguments can be dismantled or/and at least their interpretation. Still, it is useful to sharpen one’s mind and argument also as most current leaders (business or even policy), despite favourable public declarations, do not envisage to change the economic model in substance. Otherwise, the situation of current global environmental stress would have been avoided in first place just by intrinsically adapting the economic model gradually over the past 50 years or so to cope with sustainability of resources. One must not be “surprised” by such a behaviour, on the contrary it is probably impossible for the Head of any major company/organisation, e.g. of the oil-gas extraction business to present to the shareholders the plan to skip payment of dividends for the next 20+ years, to divest the profitable business of oil-gas extraction and to invest into the development of a new decarbonised but yet unproven/expensive or not even technically existing energy technology which might work in 10-20 years (or not), or be even then “out of the market” because another company found a better solution. It might be considered symptomatic that e.g. Elon Musk (with Tesla cars) has no historical ties to the automotive industry nor to the traditional energy business, nor did he partner with existing car manufacturers or energy companies, otherwise he would probably never have proven that it is possible to build non-polluting cars (when driving, the full-cycle balance of components is still more complex) at competitive prices and that hence the business case of traditional (European) car makers is obsolete by now. Surely there are plenty of challenges still to overcome, there are other solutions possible, e.g. hydrogen based, but in essence he demonstrated that at least ONE solution is possible, hence it is possible.

The EU car manufacturers tend of course to delay progress and prefer to “optimize” emission testing results than to accept the fact that the era of fossil fuel driven combustion engines is basically over by logic. The consequences on employment in some EU countries currently strongly exposed might be considered so significant that policy could try to hinder progress more than favoring it. Also, many economies, certainly those of the EU Member States depend heavily on revenues deriving from current taxation of fossil fuels’ consumption and losing that revenue stream is certainly not envisage-able for politicians acting under fiscal stress.

Hence, to me, the approach towards mitigating climate change must embrace all possibilities of a bottom-up approach, strengthening the final consumer to act responsibly, freeing the entrepreneur-ism of the many and not believe that an elitist top-down approach will bring the best solution, if any. It is furthermore comforting the above statement and revealing that the most notorious person combating climate change is a pupil of 16 years of age and not the presidents of the institutions of the EU, the one of the UN, or someone of the IMF or the WB etc. Going into more substance I do see several points worth of debate in the presentation:

Putting “Global GDP” as sole reference is by definition not allocating parts of global GDP to particular continents, countries or regions nor does it make a difference if all “wealth” is allocated to one country, one social or even ethical class of humans or whether it is rather evenly distributed.

The allocation of global resources is hence considered free to those who have the highest financial strength to secure them and leaves aside basically all ethical, social, environmental, etc.. effects, they are considered negligible. This assumption might be openly challenged as in mid to long run all of those “negligible” effects are the source of conflicts which then affect global GDP.

Being deliberately cynical, variation of global GDP is very different if either the poorest billion of humans are affected (global GDP does barely change if they cease to exist) or whether it is the richest billion of humans to bear the consequences (basically OECD and some billionaires to disappear). If then, such founded “global policy decisions” lead to “some” climate change having negative consequences mostly on those who are too poor to save themselves, global GDP is barely affected and hence the policy path leading to this kind of decision of resource allocation might even seem most pertinent. As a humanist but also looking at implied long term consequences I hope that such an attitude can only be considered purely fictional.

The presentation does not allocate added value geographically (from extraction/mining or creation to production, distribution and consumption) and ignores whether long distances of shipment occur. If, as in the past, environmental degradation has no “cost”, then effectively long distance transport is cheap and hence contributes to the inequal attribution of “value added” within the global system as benefiting from social dumping is pertinent. Global GDP as reference is indifferent to geographical fiscal and work-force cost optimisation. Security of supply of any sub-part of the globe has no value in that presentation and hence it postulates that free flow of resources is always possible (no embargoes, no “ethical policy choices” etc. occur.) which seems not arguable considering history of mankind.

To sum up, global GDP could be a pertinent reference if one were to compare economies of different “inhabited planets” but is too large a scale for assessing the challenges on our globe. The “too” inequal allocation of resources have always led to all forms of unrest and will continue to do so. If one inhabited region is about to turn into a desert or to be flooded due to rising sea levels the residents will migrate elsewhere and they will do so whether they are welcome in the place of arrival or not. In late antiquity, the wave of migration based on the Huns’ expansionism (although most likely not climate driven) can serve as an example including with regards to the consequences on the then established inhabitants of large parts of Europe.

Taking some detailed figures of the shown slides allow also for some quite positive rational to embrace the challenge:

– The cost of economic transition for mitigating climate change for Europe was calculated at around 300 billion euro/year as base case. Now, if these 300 billion euro/year can roughly be allocated by simply reducing costs spent in the current system, like phasing out the subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and imports of fossil fuels (totaling 250 billion euro/year for Europe according to IEA and EC), even without “valuing” EU job growth, increased security of supply and better air quality, then the immediate benefits of investing actively in climate change mitigation efforts seem to prevail and should guide policy decisions asap despite the resistance of those “losing out”.

To cite the sources: IEA data states that roughly 100 bcm/year of subsidies are still allocated to fossil fuels in Europe (cited in the EC in house EPSC publication “10 trends to reshaping climate and energy”) and roughly 150 bcm/y are paid to import fossil fuels to the EU according to the EC (in November 2018: COMMUNICATION COM(2018) 773: “A Clean Planet for all – A European long-term strategic vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy” and supporting documents).

– If climate change mitigation is taken seriously it is one important basis for industrial and economic policy for the immediate future and for a long time:

Professor Lomborg’s conclusions of firstly assisting the emergence of massive “green R+D” and secondly, although he does not believe in the necessity to reduce CO2 emissions, but if one does, he rightly recommends a global CO2 emission pricing system can be supported. As it is unrealistic that the latter can be achieved fast, it is of great importance to design asap a fair trading system, based on a functioning within-EU cost allocation, where the environmental footprint of goods and services is correctly taken into account and, if necessary, shall include EU border taxation of products and services which do not reflect this. Negotiations on international level, e.g. within the WTO or even the current free-trade negotiations (CETA, TTIP+,…) must embrace this as an EU position asap.

It is understood that not all EU Member States are in favour of mitigating climate change, this resistance has to be overcome or a smaller area of the EU has to go ahead. If the EU institutions have any sense, then they must strengthen the possibility of the European citizen to live in a prosperous and healthy, sustainable environment. By doing so and taking into account security of supply aspects including components of technology, the solutions developed can certainly be exported to those parts of the world where demographic growth and the current lack of sustainable prosperity for those citizens forms a need. To end, a liberal approach could mean to free the potential of all (bottom up), to be open to new solutions, to incentivise and educate all to act responsibly and not to resign to delegate the search of solutions to the established actors alone.

The challenge is significant but can be dealt with positively by embracing the efforts of all and by avoiding to impose the costs of change to the captive middle-class citizen. Certainly one of the cheapest aspects of tackling the challenge is to allow for intensive debate of all stakeholders and I hope that such initiatives are intensified by the European Parliament, euromind, ALDE and others.