Europe’s Climate Change Backtrack

Today Roger Pielke Jr. published has another interesting post on climate change policy, this time on the European Parliaments  recent decision to backtrack on supporting its emissions trading market. The Financial Times has a good appraisal of the situation here . In short, the article describes how the current economic situation of Europe has pushed climate change action, which was one of Europe’s iconic symbols, into the back burner.

The FT graph shows the fall of the emissions trading market. What we see happening is an example of what Roger Pielke  Jr. has been saying for a long time about the Iron Law of Climate Policy: ” The “iron law” simply states that while people are often willing to pay some price for achieving environmental objectives, that willingness has its limits.  Such limits may fall at different thresholds for different places at different times.  The iron law seems so common sense that I am always surprised when I hear objections to it.” Given the energy needs of the world, climate change policy as advocated through policies such as emission trading, carbon taxes etc. (most mitigation strategies) simply won’t work. In this post Roger does some of the math: the targets proposed by the EU and most nations are simply not going to be reached, I did this exercise in Roger’s class myself as a graduate student.

In his latest article Pielke Jr., has the following to say:

The reality of emissions reductions is that the decarbonisation of the global economy will occur when less carbon-intensive energy alternatives displace dirtier sources. In the US, a revolution in technologies for natural gas extraction has led to an unexpected increase in rates of decarbonisation and significant reductions in emissions, while underpinning economic growth and cheaper energy costs. However, broader expansion of gas technologies faces opposition, as does nuclear power which holds even greater promise for large quantities of carbon free energy, often from those same lobbies pressing for action on climate change.

Decisions about energy technologies matter a great deal: the IEA observed in a report released last week that the carbon intensity of global energy generation has not changed in 20 years, despite the rapid increase in solar and wind technologies.  The lesson here is that markets don’t change carbon intensities, technology does. So long as debates over climate policies focus on trying to reify esoteric carbon markets and their associated politics, it is highly unlikely that the future will see policy outcomes any different than those observed to date.

Europe’s latest setback should nevertheless remind us that people remain generally willing to pay some price for attaining climate policy goals via a price on carbon, a lesson reinforced in Australia, New Zealand, California, my home town of Boulder and perhaps soon in China. We also know that accelerating decarbonisation of the economy requires a substantial commitment to energy innovation. Perhaps we are getting closer to the moment when advocates for action on climate put these points together in the form of a sustainable approach to climate policy.

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