Monbiot, Stern and climate change strategies
In New Left Review, Clive Hamilton writes a review and critique of George Monbiot’s Heat. There are a number of interesting passages. First, he gives this doozy as an indicator of how grave the issue is in the USA:
In recent years wealthy Texans have discovered the joys of sitting in front of a log fire. As it is usually hot in Texas they must turn their air conditioners up so they can enjoy the cosy warmth from their hearths. Using energy simultaneously to heat a house and cool it only seems perverse if you reject George Bushâ€™s conception of the American way of life.
He condenses the policy choice between a carbon tax and carbon trading nicely:
[A] carbon tax and an emissions trading system are very similar, except that the first fixes the price of emissions and allows the market to determine the quantity emitted, while the latter sets the quantity of emissions and allows the market to set the price.
And he compares and contrasts the Monbiot plan and the Stern Review:
One reason for this divergence lies in differing targets. While Monbiotâ€™s goal of 90 per cent cuts by 2030 would limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 440 parts per million, Stern considers this to be impossible and sets 550 parts per million as his target. This will require emission cuts of 25 per cent by 2050, including reductions of 60â€“75 per cent in the power sector. (Stern says that in the longer term, reductions of at least 80 per cent will be needed.) His goal is thus much less ambitious, although still hard to attain. Monbiot feels the need to describe in great detail exactly how and where the cuts should occur. Stern is confident that once a powerful signal is sent to the market, then the market will find a way to carry out the restructuring of the energy economy.
In a companion article, Monbiot responds. First he comments on the choice of a 2 degrees above pre-industrial target (remember we are already a third of the way there, with global average temperatures up about 0.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels):
Two degrees of warming is the point at which up to 4 billion people could suffer water shortages, crop yields could fall in many regions of the poor world, mountain glaciers disappear worldwide and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, is expected to begin. It is also the point at which several important positive feedbacks could be triggered. The permafrost of the West Siberian peat bog, for example, contains 70 billion tonnes of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. If all of it were released, its warming effect would equate to 73 years of current man-made carbon dioxide emissions. The methane that escapes due to melting would accelerate global warming, melting more permafrost, which releases more methane. A two-degree rise in temperatures could cause the runaway warming of permafrost throughout the Arctic Circle.
He chides Stern for not acknowledging this as a target:
Sir Nicholas Stern, for example, spells out the dire consequences of two degrees of warming. He then recommends a target for atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases of 550 parts per million, when measured as â€˜carbon dioxide equivalentâ€™ (CO2e). Stern admits that this concentration would produce â€˜at least a 77 per cent chanceâ€”and perhaps up to a 99 per cent chance, depending on the climate model usedâ€”of a global average temperature rise exceeding 2Â°C.â€™ It would also give us a â€˜30â€“70 per centâ€™ chance of exceeding 3Â° and â€˜a 24 per cent chance that temperatures will exceed 4Â°Câ€™. In other words, 550ppm CO2e is the wrong target, as Stern must know. ukâ€™ conference, Westminster, 21 September 2005.’, FGCOLOR, ‘#E3E3E3’, BGCOLOR, ‘#000000’)” onmouseout=”nd();”>
He then says that one of the most important choices comes down to one of nuclear power or fossil fuels with carbon sequestration, and explains why he chooses the latter:
Unless we discover a magical new source of fuel, it comes down to an unfortunate choice between nuclear power and burning fossil fuel with capture and storage. … Like most of the worldâ€™s people, I would like to see complete multilateral nuclear disarmament. This is almost impossible while fissile materials are still processed for use in nuclear power stations. Eisenhowerâ€™s programme for beating the nuclear sword into the nuclear ploughshare has achieved just the opposite.
So I place nuclear power second on my list of preferences. My first choice is the burning of natural gas with carbon capture and storage, and my third the burning of coal with ccs. Hamilton calls carbon capture â€˜a political ruse first and foremostâ€™, but the real ruse is to pretend that no ugly technology has to be selected: that a modern economy can be run on carrot juice and wishful thinking. He argues that carbon and storage is â€˜likely to be more expensive than existing alternativesâ€™. Which alternatives does he have in mind? If you want to generate large quantities of non-variable, low-carbon electricity, there is only one.
Monbiot then rips Stern’s methodology (this is not in Heat, as the book came out a few months before the Stern Review):
The calculations Stern uses … are nonsensical. On one side of the equation are the costs of preventing climate change, most of which take the form of investments in new technologies and disinvestments from old ones. These are quite easily quantified. On the other side are the costs of climate change. Some of these are financialâ€”food prices could rise, sea walls will need to be built. But most of them are costs which have hitherto been regarded as incalculable: the destruction of ecosystems and human communities; the displacement of people from their homes; disease and death. These are all thrown together by Sir Nicholas with a formula he calls â€˜equivalent to a reduction in consumptionâ€™, to which he then attaches a price. The global disaster unleashed by a 5â€“6Â° rise in temperature is â€˜equivalent to a reduction in consumptionâ€™ of 5â€“20 per cent.
In what way is it equivalent? It is true that as people begin to starve they will consume less; when they die they cease to consume altogether. I can accept that a unit of measurement allowing us to compare the human costs of different spending decisions might be necessary. But Sternâ€™s unitâ€”a reduction in consumptionâ€”incorporates everything from the price of eggs to the pain of bereavement. He then translates it into a â€˜social cost of carbonâ€™, measured in dollars. He has, in other words, put a price on human life. Worse still, he has ensured that this price is lost among the other prices: when we read that the â€˜social cost of carbonâ€™ is $30 a tonne, we donâ€™t knowâ€”unless we read the whole reportâ€”how much of this is made of human lives.
This methodology leads to a disastrous consequence, unintended but surely obvious. Sternâ€™s report shows that the dollar losses from failing to prevent a high degree of global warming outweigh the dollar savings arising from not taking action. It therefore makes economic sense to try to prevent runaway climate change. But what if the result had been different? What if he had discovered that the profits accruing from burning more fossil fuels exceeded the social cost of carbon? We would then find that it makes economic sense to kill people.
Ridiculous as this sounds, it was, in effect, the conclusion of another report commissioned by the uk Treasury, written by the former chief executive of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington.hm Treasury, The Eddington Transport Study, December 2006. ‘, FGCOLOR, ‘#E3E3E3’, BGCOLOR, ‘#000000’)” onmouseout=”nd();”> Asked to advise the government on the links between transport and the ukâ€™s economic growth, Eddington found that even when the costs of climate change, as calculated by Stern, are taken into account, the total costs of expanding the ukâ€™s airports and road networks are lower than the amount of money to be made. Though he never spelt it out in these terms (I can find no evidence in his report that he has even understood the implications), Eddington discovered that it makes economic sense for other peopleâ€”mostly Africans and Asiansâ€”to die in order that we in the developed world can travel more.
Finally, Monbiot defends his preference of equal per-capita emissions entitlements. He notes that:
the European Emissions Trading Scheme is flawed … because it is an act of enclosure. By handing out CO2 emissions permits, free of charge, to the European companies that pollute most, it ensured not only that the polluter was paid, but also that something which belongs to all of usâ€”the right, within the system, to produce a certain amount of carbon dioxideâ€”was given to the corporations.
I favour carbon rationing because it is a much fairer scheme: it allocates an equal entitlement to pollute to all people. One plausible scheme would ration 40 per cent of the national carbon target equally between citizens, purely for buying fuel and electricity. The other 60 per cent would be auctioned to companies for the same purpose, and all allocations would be tradeable. Those who use less than their entitlement can sell the surplus to those who use more. As, by and large, the poor use less energy than the rich, it is likely to result in a redistribution of wealth. Energy taxes, by contrast, hit the poor hardest.