14 June 2009

Target 1939: A Case for Absolute Baselines

There has been some occasional chatter about the use of relative baselines in setting targets for greenhouse gas emissions, with some folks arguing for using a 1990 baseline and others suggesting 2005. How silly. How about just using absolute baselines? The following examples use carbon dioxide emissions.

If the world wants to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels this really means returning to 1939 levels of emissions.

For the US, a 17% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions below 2005 levels (such as in the Waxman-Markey Bill) represents a return to about 1990 levels. An 80% reduction represents a return to 1905 levels.

For the United Kingdom, a reduction of 34% from 1990-(its 2022 interim target) represents a return to carbon dioxide emissions of 1896 and an 80% reduction (its 2050 target) represents a return to emissions of 1849. (Wow!)

You can calculate other absolute baselines with the dataset here.


  1. Two issues here. First, 1990. From the Telegraph, UK, I learned that 1990 was chosen for Kyoto because it would allow Britain and Germany to include the already-planned closing of coal-fired power plant and redundant East German factories, respetively. Thus, both industrialized nations started Kyoto playing with house money. Any shift to post-1990 baselines would make the two countries' cuts much more painful.

    The second issue is the actual targets. The British government pulled the targets out of thin air. With the interim targets set for 2022, I think it's fair to say that these politicians will be long gone and not answerable. Of course they will never reach the targets. Their current schedule of retiring coal fired plants - if followed - will leave then exposed to power shortages long before 2022.

    Any realistic program would require verifiable near-term targets, and penalties for violators. A forced carbon tax would probably do the job. And for that reason, you'd never see it.

  2. Note that as the UK population has risen by a factor of about four over the last two hundred years, a cut of 80% in total emissions corresponds to a cut in per capita emissions to the level of 1803 or so.

  3. With a current population in the UK (about 66 million) 3 times larger than 1849 (about 21 million), that means you would have to go back to 1812 to get the same per capita emissions.

    If we do need to back to 1812, we will try not burn down Washington, this time around....

  4. I'm confused by your statement that the choice of baseline year is "silly." It seems crucial to me insofar as it establishes a presumptive rule for international allocation of mitigation responsibility. Not Whitey Bulger reminds us that 1990 was tactically beneficial for UK and Germany, but I think it also was for Russia (it was a local GDP peak and Soviet energy inefficiency was legendary).

    Any choice of baseline year invites strategic behavior, unless there is a clear and permanent de-linking of the % reduction from the implicit allocation of international responsibility across nations. China's share of GHG emissions in 1939, for example, probably is lost in the sixth decimal place.

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  6. regcheck-4-

    [I have added numbering to the comments]

    Thanks. I agree that there are tactical advantages to the choice of baseline, e.g., as you explain with respect to 1990. But this is also why I think it is a silly, as the tactical issues detract from the broader policy goal of decarbonization. This could be avoided by talking about absolute rather than relative baselines.

  7. Roger

    Yes, tactical issues do detract from the broader policy goal of decarbonization. And this could be avoided by talking about absolute rather than relative baselines. My point is that politicians have consciously chosen to detract from the broader goals of decarbonization by talking about relative rather than absolute baselines. They don't do it because they're confused - they do it because they understand the implications of absolute baselines perfectly well.

    The point being that there is a difference between doing something about CO2 levels and wanting to be seen as doing something about CO2 levels. I would suggest to you that there is no industrialized country in the world where politicians are going to take the steps necessary to actually decarbonize at the rates demanded by the consensus science. That won't stop them from talking the consensus talk, but none will walk the consensus walk.