07 July 2009

How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course

A report from a worldwide consortium of research institutes led by Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science argues that climate policy needs to focus on improving energy efficiency and decarbonising the energy supply, as opposed to setting emissions targets.

With the G8 set to meet in Italy this week, a report from a worldwide consortium of research institutes is arguing that the only policies that will work are those which focus on improvement in energy efficiency and the decarbonisation of energy supplies.

The report, published by the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Mackinder Programme, argues that this approach is more effective than a model based on emissions targets.

Called How to Get Climate Policy back on Course, the report argues that the recent Japanese ‘Mamizu’ climate strategy is the world’s first to start down this ‘real world’ course in sharp contrast to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, the UK Climate Change Act and the US Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation.

Professor Steve Rayner, Director of InSIS at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The world has centuries of experience in decarbonising its energy supply and Japan has led the world in policy-driven improvements in energy efficiency. These are the models to which we ought to be looking.’

Professor Gwyn Prins, from LSE, said: ‘Worthwhile policy builds upon what we know works and upon what is feasible rather than trying to deploy never-before implemented policies through complex institutions requiring a hitherto unprecedented and never achieved degree of global political alignment.’

The paper’s 12 co-authors come from leading research institutes in Europe (England, Germany, Finland), North America (Canada, USA) and Asia (Australia, Japan).

The report points out that between 1990 and 2000 the carbon intensity of the global economy was 0.27 tonnes for every additional $1000 of GDP. In the period 2001 to 2006 this rose to 0.53 tonnes.

The Obama Administration has argued that one should never waste a good crisis. How to Get Climate Policy back on Course shows how deep the crisis of climate policy really is and gives a real world alternative to the continued pursuit of policies that have so clearly failed.

How to Get Climate Policy back on Course is the sequel to The Wrong Trousers: Radically Re-thinking Climate Policy (2007), its influential LSE/Oxford predecessor.

Download the full report: How to Get Climate Policy back on Course (pdf)

Media contact:
Susan Curran
Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
University of Oxford
+44 (0)1865 288820


  1. I don't see why energy efficiency and decarbonizing the energy supply, on the one hand, and emission caps, are in any way opposed or contradictory. Clearly there is some (though not enough) of the former in the Obama policy, while emission caps are incentive to do just that.

    This is a separate question from whether cap and trade is the best option for emission limits. I'm not convinced that it is, but I'm also not convinced that the death of the cap and trade bill would necessarily lead to a quick effort for a better bill.

  2. Roger Sr wrote today: "we should have little or no confidence on predictions of surface air temperatures, even on a global average, in the coming decades."

    Given that the existing predictions are so unreliable, I would suggest that climate policy will not get back on a sound course until we recognize that the existing science does not support the hysteria.

  3. After reading the report, I don't really see much that is new. Criticisms of existing policies that are not meeting goals is hardly new - many of their criticisms are valid but not ground-breaking. Advocacy of efficiency is certainly not anything new. And while improving carbon and energy intensity is, in itself, a good thing, there are plenty of examples of how alone it is completely inadequate.

    It also doesn't explain to me why an improvement in existing policies wouldn't benefit from emission caps as a part of them. It's focus on Japan doing better as a result of its policies neglects that it is also has a very different political culture, as well as different economic conditions (no population growth and concentrated population densities, weak economic growth for many years, etc).

    To me, the reason why so many countries that are supposedly trying are not doing well is simply that there are too many constituencies that are either financially invested in the status quo or ideologically opposed to change that is needed. They have adopted the only policies that they thought were politically feasible.

    I think that both carbon taxes and cap and trade could work, despite the vociferous debate between each side's proponents. The question is what is more likely to work given the state of politics in various countries.

    I think it all gets back to Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" which discusses how societies do not make the choices they needed to make to survive and prosper. And I think the reason for that has a lot more to do with rigidity in their political process than some ignorance of the resulting policy and its impact.

  4. (PS - my apologies for three quick posts - not my normal habit)

    Stan - It is not a "given" that existing predictions are unreliable. It is the opinion of Roger Pielke Sr that they are unreliable, and it is very much a minority opinion among working scientists in the field.

    Climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases is based not just on models that have been developed and tested intensively for years, but on extensive research of past climate change epochs.

    I'm not accusing Pielke Sr of being a denier. His opinion is valid as his opinion. I've read from many scientists, including those who disagree with him, that his published research is quite impressive. But his blog appears to discount anybody who publishes opposing results with him. He lists his papers and those who agree with them, and then declares everything else as not true.

  5. "Stan - It is not a "given" that existing predictions are unreliable. It is the opinion of Roger Pielke Sr that they are unreliable, and it is very much a minority opinion among working scientists in the field."

    And how many "working scientists in the field" are willing to put their money where their mouths are? None of which I'm aware.

  6. Dean,

    Pielke's opinion was based on a new study which demonstrated that the climate models are unreliable. We shouldn't be surprised, they've never been verified or validated.

    I don't care what subjective opinions other scientists may have. When those scientists can show that the models are capable of verification and validation, there will be some facts to back up their opinions. Until then, their opinions are objectively worthless.

  7. Get real Dean - so far this we're missing 0.2C from the demonised aerial plant food gas CO2.

    Roger et al - this report is excellent, but until you stop simultaneously promoting CO2 as being dangerous, when it so obviously isn't, policymakers aren't going to listen, including the USA's latetst electoral mistake 'O'Barmy.'

  8. Stan - That's not how it works. One new study does not single-handedly and instantly overturn decades of research. We now need to see how others in the field respond, and if other studies verify its results.

    And there is extensive validation for the models. It is not 100% and it can't be if we want to use them to set public policy, since that can't happen till after the fact.

  9. Dean,

    Say what?! Who said anything about one study overturning decades of research? While that's what happened with Mann's silly hockey stick, only alarmists claim that an unaudited, unreplicated study completely changes decades of research.

    What Dr. Pielke Sr said was that the referenced study raises serious questions about the abilities of the models. That doesn't overturn decades of climate research. It just provides more confirmation of what is obvious to anyone who can read a graph and hasn't been bamboozled by Rahmstorf's BS.

    Your conflation of the GCMs as being the same as decades of science research is causing you to be confused.

  10. I promise a post in the near future on climate models and that will be a great place for a discussion of them. But lets use this thread to discuss our paper. Thanks

  11. Regardless of what the science says or doesn't say, CO2 emissons targets are the wrong policy.

    Taking the UK climate bill as an example, the interim and 2050 targets have been set with little or no clue as to how they will be achieved. A 'climate change committee' has been set up, loaded with government cronies and green alliance members - an unelected unaccountable QUANGO trying to implement targets that the electorate didn't vote on - democracy has been bypassed once again. Cart before the horse stuff. We're just going to be beaten with a stick until we sit shivering in the dark and agree not to travel by any rapid mode of transport.

    Much better to have a policy that is driven by technology as it becomes available by investing in R & D - maintain economic growth, prosperity and life without a green dictatorship. And don't forget adaptation to inevitable climate change, which could involve warming or cooling. Any democratic government that sacrifices economic growth, prosperity, jobs, and mobility will soon become an ex-government. I'd be surprised if any president who thinks that CO2 is 'contaminating the water we drink and pollutes the air we breathe' would get a second term in office, but in the USA almost anything is possible!

  12. This is an interesting report. For the sake of transparency though, it would have been good if you, Roger, had mentioned that you're one of the co-authors (and, judging from the footnotes, the prime provider of data).

    Still, it is yet another contribution to the debate between the deaf and the blind. Those who pay most attention to economic criteria are deaf to the arguments of climate scientists about the danger of crossing certain limits; those building their arguments on climate science are blind to the possible consequences of drastic action on the world's economy (sorry for simplifying things here).

    This debate isn't going anywhere at the moment and in the end those who speak are preaching to their respective choirs only. Academic pride seems to be stopping people from accepting that other people, with whom they actually agree as far as the existence and threat of climate change is concerned, have different worldviews, resulting in different priorities when it comes to policy solutions.

    And then there are the cheerleaders who hold on to and root for every straw that appears to support their opinions.

    This isn't how climate policy is brought back to course, and this isn't how an acceptable agreement in Copenhagen can be reached.

    I wish I had the skills and patience to get people with different worldviews to shed their mutual animosities and, based on a shared understanding of urgency and priorities, to work together in a constructive manner. Any viable climate policy solution will require a combination of insights from natural sciences, social sciences and policy sciences. As long as representatives of these disciplines avoid each other and rather use blogs to communicate, such a solution is a long way from becoming a reality.

  13. Richard-

    Thanks. My name is on the title page! Nothing hidden there.

    Also, I apologize, but I have no idea about what you are saying with this comment. If it is about our piece, do note that it is co-authored by social scientists, physical scientists and philosophers. If you want to have anther go, I'm all ears.


  14. These thoughtful Economic analyses of Climate issues sure have more intuitive and rational appeal than the (often very alarmist) papers that are increasingly coming even from respected scientific circles. Perhaps those of us in the "economic approach" camp are delusional but I think it's more likely that science and advocacy now mix far too freely, giving us only a small number of information sources that remain free from political agendas.

  15. Roger,
    could you briefly explain what are the main differences between the ideas presented in this paper and Lomborg's?
    Thank you

  16. -15-Eduardo

    Jesse Jenkins does a nice job of explaining the difference between Lomborg's somewhat one-dimensional approach and the approach recommended here in this piece as well as by the folks at The Breakthrough Institute (where I am a senior fellow, FYI) . . .