09 July 2009

A Response to Jim Watson

In the Guardian today, Jim Watson at the University of Sussex responds to our essay "Climate Policy Back on Course"(PDF). His opening lines are not so constructive:
A new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common. This new breed is not sceptical of the science, but of the policy response.
Fortunately, he moves on to a more substantive critique of our views, which is most welcome. However, his defense of an approach focused on targets and timetables for emissions reductions is substantively flawed.

First, he cites Tony Giddens as an authority to back his claims of the primacy of emissions reductions targets and timetables. But Giddens offers precious little in the way of actual support -- from his recent book 'The Politics of Climate Change" Giddens writes (pp. 106-107):
A different approach is needed from the one prevalent at the moment. . . Most initiatives that have successfully reduced emissions so far have been driven by the motivation to increase energy efficiency, rather than to limit climate change. This observation applies to whole countries as well as regions, cities and the actions of individuals. It should still be the lead principle today, since great efficiency ipso facto reduces emissions. . . The fundamental problem at the moment is to make clean energy sources competitive with fossil fuel energy sources, whether through public provision of subsidies or through technological advance.
This perspective seems pretty consistent with what we have written.

With the appeal to authority out of the way, lets take a look at Watson's substantive critique:

Simply supporting cleaner, low-carbon technologies is not enough and is naive. Experience shows that pushing technologies with funding is just one part of a complex picture. There also needs to be a market for these technologies so that businesses and individuals adopt them. Markets for low-carbon technologies need to be created through a combination of carbon prices and regulations. Without them, a lot of good technology investment will go to waste.

The emphasis on energy efficiency in the report is welcome, but not thought through. Almost all assessments of climate mitigation pathways conclude that energy efficiency should be done first because it saves us money. However, making energy production and use more efficient is not as easy as it seems, and can have unintended consequences. The "rebound effect" happens because the savings are used for other energy-consuming activities. This seldom makes energy efficiency a waste of time, but emissions caps are needed to limit such rebounds.

This argument is somewhat off-target and does not contradict what we have written. We establish in our paper that there are two -- and only two -- ways to decarbonize the global economy, and that is through improving efficiency and decarbonizing energy supply. The debate is (or should be) about the most appropriate means to achieve those goals. Watson thinks that a cap on emissions will force those goals to be achieved. We believe that a direct focus on efficiency and low carbon energy supply makes far more sense.

Why? David Victor from Stanford explains the general problem:
I think the approach of setting binding emission targets through treaties is wrongheaded because it “forces” governments to do things they don’t know how to do. And that puts them in a box, from which they escape using accounting tricks (e.g., offsets) rather than real effort.
In contrast to the current approach, focused on emissions, imagine an approach to climate policy in which nations were debating targets and timetables for improvements in energy efficiency and the pace of deployment for low carbon energy supply rather than emisisons reduction targets or even more disconnected from policy, global average temperature targets.

What Watson should have done instead of focusing on efficiency and decarbonization of energy supply, where there is little disagreement, is to explain why it is that an indirect approach is better than a direct approach. He does not do this, leaving us needing to believe that there is some alchemy in the setting of a target that can compel actions better than a direct approach can. As we argue in our paper, indirect approaches are doomed to failure, and the track record so far supports this argument. Why should we expect things to be different in the future?

The reality is that a commitment to reduce emissions necessarily implies progress with respect to improvements in energy efficiency and decarbonization of energy supply (see Pielke 2009). At the same time a singular focus on targets and timetables for emissions reductions obscures the challenge in lieu of making promises that may satisfy cathartic needs but no one knows how to keep. We are arguing for a more direct, a more transparent, and thus more achievable focus for climate policy. Why will a less direct approach do better?

If decarbonization of the global economy consistent with stabilization targets is actually to occur then it will necessarily have to occur through progress in energy efficiency and decarbonization of energy supply. Period. Given that this is the case, why don't we just cut to the chase rather than making things more complicated than necessary?