BJORN LOMBORG: Smarter, cheaper way is needed to move to green energy
If we can innovate the price of low-carbon energy below that generated from fossil fuels, everyone will switch
The outcome of the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26) has been criticised by commentators as unambitious, with some calling it a “monumental failure”. Even the summit’s host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, admitted the deal was “tinged with disappointment”. This is hardly surprising: historically, most climate promises have fared badly.
Since climate negotiations started almost three decades ago grand promises have been followed by spectacular let-downs and large emission increases. In a startlingly honest review of climate policies of the past decade, the UN Environment Programme found that global emissions since 2005 were indistinguishable from a world in which we did nothing to tackle climate change. Imagine that: for all the past decade’s many lofty climate promises, including the Paris Agreement, emissions have increased as if there is no climate policy whatsoever.
It is easy and popular for politicians to talk up the dangers of climate change and promise safety, with grandiose policies for 2030 or 2050. It is much less popular when it is time to ask voters to pay for these draconian climate policies. When French President Emmanuel Macron enacted a tiny petrol tax, he was met with years of yellow-vest protests. In June, Swiss voters said no to a new carbon tax, and the UK government backed off on introducing a new, costly mandate to replace gas-fired home heating.
In Glasgow, US President Joe Biden restated his goal to have the US go net zero by 2050, but this will have a surprisingly small impact. Even if he managed to get to zero today and keep it there for the rest of the century, the standard UN climate model shows this would reduce the temperature rise by the end of the century by only 0.16°C.
Yet this climate policy would be spectacularly costly. A new study in the renowned journal Nature shows that reducing emissions by 95% by 2050 — almost Biden’s promise of net zero — would cost 11.9% of GDP, or more than $11,000 present-day dollars for each American citizen, every year. These costs are far higher than most people are willing to spend — in one survey, a majority was unwilling to spend even $24 a year. Proposing costs that are hundreds of times higher than voters accept simply can’t be sustained for decades.
Moreover, cutting emissions is not mostly about what the rich world does, because most emissions in the 21st century will come from China and India, along with the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America. For them, the current climate approach of paying huge amounts for achieving negligible temperature reductions in 100 years’ time is spectacularly unattractive.
As their citizens live off as little as a few hundred dollars annually, they understandably care more about their children surviving malaria and malnutrition. They want to escape misery, poor education and low job prospects. They care about lifting themselves and their children out of poverty with strong economic growth.
Just days before the Glasgow summit 24 emerging economies, including China and India, said the demand for them to achieve net zero by 2050 is unjust because it stops poor countries from developing their economies. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni put it even more bluntly: “Africans have a right to use reliable, cheap energy.” Little wonder that these nations intervened against language in the final deal that would have called for the phasing out of coal.
We clearly need a smarter way forward, otherwise the next 26 climate conferences will be as inconsequential as the first 26 iterations. Leaders should focus on innovation to make green energy cheaper. While politicians often claim green is already cheaper, this is belied by the evidence — if it was cheaper, we wouldn’t need years of haggling to get hundreds of nations to grudgingly promise to go greener.
In this smarter approach we would dramatically ramp up investment into research & development for cheaper, low-CO₂ energy, from fusion and fission, solar, wind and batteries, to second-generation biofuels and many other brilliant ideas. Not only would it be much cheaper than current climate policies, it would also drive major breakthroughs for new, better and greener energy.
In Glasgow, leaders missed the chance to switch gears and drastically ramp up funding for green innovation. They will get another chance at COP27 in Cairo, Egypt, in 2022. If we can innovate the price of green energy below that generated from fossil fuels, everyone will switch.
• Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is ‘False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet’.
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