Monday, January 14, 2008

Carbon Sunk

Sometimes it pays to read the small print. Richard Tol, Ireland's most prodigious economist, writes in the latest issue of the ESRI's Quarterly Economic Commentary about just one of the targets set out in the 86 page Agreement for Government signed by Fiánna Fail, the Greens and PDs in June last year. On page 19 of the Agreement we read that:
... the Government will set a target for this administration of a reduction of 3% per year on average in our greenhouse gas emissions.
As Tol points out, this amounts to a five year goal for the present government of reducing CO2 emissions by up to 25%. Or 'a considerable task' as he wryly puts it.

So what would it take for the Government to deliver on this one goal? Given that we're more or less stuck with the energy infrastructure, housing and transport systems that will predominate even by 2012 (as these things take decades to change), then more radical measures are required. Here are some of Tol's calculations of what it would (hypothetically) require for the Government to succeed:
  • Reduce the number of cattle in Ireland by 50% between now and 2012, or

  • Reduce the number of people in Ireland by 50%, or

  • Reduce energy usage per resident by 50% or

  • Move two fifths of industrial and service production off-shore
Tol therefore proposes that the Government actually abandons its target. I'm inclined to agree with him on this one. Remarkably, Tol's analysis has gone completely unchallenged by the Government, suggesting perhaps that they've realised the error of their ways and have indeed decided to quietly abandon this particular target. I hope so.

The wider context for the issues Tol addresses is one of political wishful thinking, economic ignorance and doomsday weather forecasts. Most people (including me) reckon that there are signs of significant climate change and that human activity has played a part in these changes. But beyond that there is a wide divergence of opinion about how fast, how far and how bad these changes will be. You only have to read the International Panel for Climate Change Working Group 1 Report "The Physical Science Basis" to appreciate that there is significant uncertainty about the future nature and impact of climate change in the short, medium and long term (though consensus that there will be some change and impact).

This is not to council doing nothing. Rather, as a number of critics of both the IPCC and the Stern Review (including Tol here) have argued in some fairly robust discussions in the Journal of World Economics and elsewhere, the balance of probabilities leads to a policy of introducing and gradually increasing measures such as carbon taxes. But the same probabilities in relation to climate change do not justify the kind of Khmer Rouge Year Zero extremism implied by targets such as the Government's above.

Climate skepticism does not necessarily mean 'climate change doubting': read the considered scepticism of the folk at Climate Resistance. But it does mean standing up to nonsense, even if it's nonsense with the imprimatur of binding orthodox consensus stamped on it. And anyway, we could always do what David Keith proposes, and inject a cloud of ash into the air above the poles, bringing the melting of the ice caps to a halt within days.

Mind you, I don't expect any consensus on that one any time soon ...

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