The tyranny of climate targets
We need cost-effective specifics, not hazy generalities
Holding this year’s COP meeting in Dubai struck me as a somewhat odd call given the host country’s vested interest in promoting fossil fuel usage. In some ways, though, I think it’s been helpful in highlighting an issue that I’ve been wanting to write about: the odd weight placed in certain circles on largely meaningless climate targets.
The conference began on a contentious note with Emirati climate chief Sultan Al Jaber saying there’s “no science” behind the idea of phasing out fossil fuel use, “unless you want to take the world back into caves.” John Kerry, who runs a sort of odd White House office on climate diplomacy, responded that “the G7 countries voted that there should be a phasing out of unmitigated fossil fuel emissions and what there is science for is keeping 1.5 degrees as your North Star.”
The Emiratis are overstating the case here with this business about caves.
But I do think Al Jaber is raising a valid and important point, which is that you don’t need to deny the science of climate change to see that reducing global fossil fuel use to zero would have gargantuan social and economic costs, barring some huge technological breakthroughs. This is actually a pretty normal situation — there is a margin at which reducing X is cost-effective and there is another margin at which it isn’t — for a policy problem. But the climate debate is dominated by a right-wing camp of dismissiveness and conspiracy theorizing and an establishment that’s committed to the sort of odd abstractions we heard from Kerry.
It begins with the premise that 1.5 degrees centigrade of warming is the target the world has agreed on. From there, it’s possible to deploy various scientific models to estimate which emissions pathways are consistent with achieving the 1.5 degree goal. Then, with even more modeling, you can estimate what kinds of energy consumption are consistent with achieving that emissions pathway. Those models will tell you that after such-and-such a date, you “can’t” have any fossil fuel emissions that aren’t 1-to-1 matched by carbon capture or carbon renewal. So then you tussle over how to allocate that fossil fuel phaseout across different countries and different sectors. I think everyone is broadly aware that the world is not going to hit these targets. But the climate movement’s priority is to come as close as possible to hitting the targets, which means moving as ambitiously as possible in whichever jurisdictions the movement happens to obtain adequate political power. So California and several other states are setting target dates to phase out sales of internal combustion engine cars. Michigan recently set a target of decarbonizing its electricity grid by 2040. Everything kind of flows downhill as a nested series of target-setting initiatives.
The problem is that these exercises lose track of the questions that are actually of interest — how much emissions abatement is being achieved and at what cost?