Tuesday, October 09, 2007

'Radically rethinking climate policy'

Here are my notes from It’s the development path stupid, a talk by Steve Rayner at Oxford University Centre for the Environment on 8 Oct. The notes should not be taken as precise, complete or detailed record of what he actually said: they may contain errors, over-simplifications and unhelpful abbreviations, and certainly omit some important points.

Rayner said that the Kyoto Protocol had been an important symbolic expression of global concern. But it had failed.

Bill Clinton recognised this and left the body of Kyoto on a gurney in the basement of the Whitehouse. When George W. Bush moved in he ordered that the stinking body be buried.

We need to accept, said Rayner, that on climate change Bush was a bad guy doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. His biggest mistake was not to propose an alternative for at least six years.

Nevertheless, many (European governments, NGOs etc) continue to think that the solution is to do more of the same: a bigger, better Kyoto. This was a typical example of framing a problem incorrectly and then continuing to insist when you fail that a solution is to do more of what you did before.

Rayner was particularly critical of governments like the British one, whose (then) environment David Milliband could express an interest in personal carbon credits on almost the same day as his government announced two major new airport runways. [Scepticism with regard to the UK government may be reinforced by this article by George Monbiot]. Rayner also took issue with environmentalists such as Monbiot and Mark Lynas who, he said, overstated or misstated the issues – saying, for example, that scientists agree that climate change is the greatest danger humanity has ever faced. Scientists agree no such thing, said Rayner. What about nuclear war or the Black Death etc?

Kyoto is modelled on three earlier treaties – the Vienna Convention on stratospheric ozone (which preceded the Montreal Protocol); the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the US EPA’s Acid Rain Program. But there were vital respects in which the challenges of anthropogenic climate change could not be met from within structures modelled on these.

Perhaps the most important contributions of the Stern Review, he said, was that it recognised that climate change is a moral problem, and confirmed that poor people in marginal environments [are being and] will be most affected.

In Rayner’s view, we need to hold several alternate views in mind when searching for a real solution: a clumsy ‘decision space’ in the triangle between ‘hierarchical’, ‘radical free-market’ and ‘radical egalitarian’ views. As Lancelot Capability Brown said in a different context, 'confront the object and draw nigh obliquely'.

Rayner, a lead author for IPPC Third and Fourth Assessment Reports, said he had proposed a special report on climate change and sustainable development (which requires a diversified approach, emphasises benefits of early adaptation and building for resilience, among other things). This proposal had, he said, been vetoed by China and the United States.

His five recommendations, which may be published in a co-authored comment in Nature ahead of COP 13 in Bali, were:

1. Abandon universalism – work with the fewer than 20 countries that ‘really’ matter (and only around 10 if EU is counted as a political block);
2. Allow genuine emissions markets to evolve from the bottom up;
3. Increase investment in adaptation (currently only around $1.5bn spent on adaptation as against approx. $19bn on mitigation). [Adaptation used to be taboo but no longer is. Geo-engineering is still taboo, but should not be];
4. Work the problem at appropriate sales (provinces, states, cities, local trading systems);
5. Make wartime levels of public investment in [green] energy R&D.

I mentioned that point 5 sounded similar to the recommendation made by Martin Rees in Science in August 2006, and asked what sort of levels of investment Rayner had in mind (were we looking at 'wartime' GDP allocation as in a total war like World War Two or as in the present perpetual war for perpetual peace), and how could political will be mobilised in support of such a goal. Rayner said he would be reasonably happy with up to half the current US spend on military R&D, which had roughly doubled under George W. Bush to $80bn – up from about $4bn today, most of which went on nuclear and 'clean' coal. The money should come from government(s), he said.

Someone else asked what should western NGOs like Oxfam best do to mobilise concern among their supporters. Rayner said they should concentrate on problems of most immediate concern to the poorest, such as provision of fresh water, rather than climate change (‘confront the object and draw nigh obliquely’). He was unimpressed by a recent Christian Aid campaign that showed a photograph of a South Asian women up to her neck in water 'calling' for readers to support a climate bill in the UK. A climate bill would not affect the stocks of GHG already in the atmosphere which might or might not be causing or contributing to present problems, he said, and this woman had much bigger problems than climate change on her plate.

In response to a questioner who looked like a Chinese government official, Rayner said the first best things China could do would be for the central goverment to mandate massive deployment of wind turbines and to rethink a model that brought about the premature death of millions of their citizens by exposing them to pollution from coal. It was at least feasible to trap particulates from coal fired power stations. This wouldn't stop CO2, of course, but it would limit the deposition of dust in the cryosphere which was thought to be contributing to accelerating polar warming by lowering albedo.

He tactfully agreed with a (I think) Brazilian questioner asking about repayment of ecological debt by saying that one of the best way to apply funds from the rich countries was to support clean energy in rapidly emerging economies on the best possible terms.

And he suggested to two other questioners that playing 'the historical blame game' was not going to solve the problem.


Charlie Kronick said...

The first few paras of your report of Rayner's
talk really pushed my buttons. I'm no fan of the Kyoto process, but the idea that Shrub was right to ignore it and his only mistake to wait til now to push technophilia and voluntary targets as the "real answer" is at best disingenuous and at worst stupid. I doubt Rayner is stupid (so I can only assume ...

But as I read on I found myself agreeing with more or less everything on the table - scale issues, focusing on key players, reframing the
debate in development terms, getting an adequate level of investment - everything in fact save his enthusiasm for geo-engineering (more evidence that he spent too much time in the States; certainly as part of the US national laboratory system).

What I don't think he was offering was a radical rethink - I reckon it was like a mainstream version of the Up in Smoke agenda, with a liberal dose of faith in carbon markets. And as for Oxfam sticking to clean water supplies and malaria - well, that's such an easy argument that even Bjorn Lomborg and Roger Bate make it. In what way is that radically reframing the debate? Still, you got me thinking - that can't be a bad thing.

Clive Bates said...

I agree with some of this, but not all... the problem is an international, intergenerational collective action challenge in conditions of uncertainty and widespread indifference to impacts several decades ahead. That's not a 'framing error' - it just is what the problem is.... and so I'm not sure that going local will do the trick. Having said that, all politics are local, and global efforts need a mandate - but we are more likely to act globally and locally if we think it is a common endeavour and not beset by free-riding, gaming and opportunism.

Some thoughts on the 5 points...

1. Abandon universalism – work with the fewer than 20 countries that ‘really’ matter (and only around 10 if EU is counted as a political block);

No, a C-20 is effectively happening in parallel and is actually what happens in negotiations anyway - through a 'contact group' or other such negotiating device. there is lots of scope to find consensus amongst big players outside the UN meetings, but to imagine this can replace a broader forum is wrong. Where this goes wrong is to ignore the value of a global agreement and how the agreement might change shape in the future: for example through global sectoral agreements (eg. for aluminium or aviation) or if the approach moves on to a 'policies and measures' agenda - eg. setting global product standards. It should also seek to involve all countries in cap and trade or harmonised carbon tax regimes. There is also the financing (CDM) and adaptation aspects of Kyoto. The other reason to have all countries involved is the moral pressure of those states that have most to lose (and gain). Nothing in that stops a 20

2. Allow genuine emissions markets to evolve from the bottom up;

What does this mean? A market is only as good as its cap - the market bit improves efficiency, not the environmental outcomes (unless you allow that trading facilitates agreement to tougher caps). Where do meaningful caps come - certainly not from the free play of perceived national self interest if the EU system is anything to go by. If you join markets that have different degrees of scarcity, then the effect is to dilute the more scarce with the less scarce. Does bottom up mean 'voluntary participation'? Does it mean based on localised legislatures (ie. US states or municipalities)? Where will they get their sense of common purpose from?

3. Increase investment in adaptation (currently only around $1.5bn spent on adaptation as against approx. $19bn on mitigation). ;

I could not agree more. Mitigation at the very best will slow the warming trend and it wont start doing that noticeably until 2040. The interesting thing that has escaped many commentators is that adaptation is not a choice really - the impacts and risks will arise whether you expect and prepare for them or not. Mitigation is a choice, albeit an irresponsible one to duck. Above all - they should not be traded off... they are are completely different.

However, I don't think it will appear as an itemised expenditure like $1.5bn or $19bn - it's more to do with doing and spending what we already do and spend differently (and probably more expensive too).

4. Work the problem at appropriate scales (provinces, states, cities, local trading systems);

Okay - but what is truly local, bearing in mind the tendency of antis to argue that local differences are 'distortions'? Could you imagine the cap-setting trouble we would have if each EU member state set its own cap or carbon tax? What if each US state set different vehicle emissions standards etc. I think things like renewables policy, building rehabilitation, local transportation, spatial planning might be a good local thing. But its less obvious with economic instruments, large scale energy supply, product standards etc.

5. Make wartime levels of public investment in [green] energy R&D.

Let me propose a thought experiment... if we only ever had the technology available today, 11 October 2007, could we address the climate change challenge? I think we could go a long way... I think the real deficit is in policy innovation and political will - ie. that which causes the available low carbon technologies to be widely applied.

You only have to look at the state of the existing building stock to realise that new technology is the least of the problems. The sort of wartime effort we need is not a Bletchley Park, Manhattan Project or dambusters effort, but more like the distribution of Morrison shelters - effective bomb retardants based on the old-tech plasticity of metal - and gas masks.

Missing from the list I think global sectoral agreements (steel, aluminium, cement, oil, aviation, shipping,); global product standards; focus on securing 'no-regrets' measures, especially in developing countries (who can object to committing only to do those things that are otherwise beneficial); very large North-South transfers to buy-out carbon intensive development; tackling deforestation; reforestation; the use of time (policies that build up gradually to give a large effect - eg. a $200 /tCO2 globally co-ordinated tax introduced over 40 years...


Clive Bates said...

Now that Steve Rayner and Gwyn Prins have published their commentary in Nature, I have done a more complete response: Don't ditch the Kyoto Protocol.

In doing this, I've concluded the ideas aren't really worth much at all - their supposedly radical alternative proposals aren't radical or alternative, but based on misunderstandings of what the Kyoto Protocol does and doesn't do.