Global growth in carbon emissions is ‘out of control’

While challenging and down to earth about how the quality of future life on the planet is at risk due to climate change, the Stern Review’s prescription of what needs to be done is fundamentally flawed. It makes assertions that the climate can be stabilised; attaches a monetary value to carbon dioxide emissions that it claims will adequately cover the damage they cause, and implies that this value can take account of all the costs over at least the next 100 years. It can’t.

Stern puts the current value at $85 on a tonne of carbon dioxide. This cannot possibly be seen as realistic. Quite clearly, that will not prevent the continuation of temperature and sea level rises and accelerated climate change. Remember those iconic images of the Arctic and the Antarctic ice shelves collapsing into the adjacent oceans? Even if we dramatically curtail our use of fossil fuels, we can only slow down the changes in weather patterns, not reverse them.

Furthermore, this value doesn’t cover some of the future vast costs such as the mass migration and re-settlement of ecological refugees. Hundreds of millions of people are almost certain to be displaced during this century as the habitable landmass shrinks and the population rises sharply.

The government’s target on which Stern’s analysis is based on a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Yet climate scientists tell us that with this degree of reduction, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will be well over 500 parts per million (ppm). But they have calculated that /400/ppm represents the ‘tipping point’ beyond which the whole process of climate change becomes irreversible. To prescribe what needs to be done by 2050 fallaciously presupposes that the 2050 target would be both sufficient and in time.

The Review maintains that the cost burden on the world’s economy of adequate action is relatively low: about one per cent of its GDP. But Stern can only support this calculation by the bold and unsubstantiated claim that: “The world does not need to choose between averting climate change and promoting growth and development”. If only this were true …

In light of his Review, Stern proposes three elements of policy. The first is a reliance on taxation as a means of curbing demand. But that would necessarily be severely socially regressive, impacting disproportionately on people, especially those in the Third World who are the least responsible for the damaging effects of climate change that he seeks to address.

The second is innovation and the deployment of low carbon technologies. But there are strong grounds for scepticism that these could conceivably deliver the required reduction of /90/per cent, not 60 percent, of emissions, which are needed by 2030, not 2050.

The third element is the removal of barriers to using energy more efficiently. However, to take cars as an example, evidence of recent years shows that without a strict cap on emissions, more people will buy the more efficient vehicles and drive further because the unit cost of travel has thereby been lowered.

Stern rightly spells out the need for a shared international vision of long-term goals on the subject of climate change, and therefore for an international framework. That framework, based on the contraction of greenhouse gas emissions and convergence towards equal per capita shares, was put forward ten years ago by the Global Commons Institute. He alludes to this Contraction and Convergence (C&C) process, though without attribution, and then carelessly misinterprets it.

So the principal message of the Stern Review is that, against a background of our current patterns of energy use, costs will have to rise considerably – but that these are manageable. That is highly questionable.

It is all too obvious that it is unrealistic to believe that the essential massive reduction in our energy-profligate lifestyles, such as flying can be achieved on a voluntary basis rather than as a result of the Government’s mandatory imposition of a system of personal carbon allowances based on C&C.


Commentary in BBC Focus magazine on the Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change.

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