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Around the world loud voices are calling for countries to become carbon neutral by 2050 but the costs will be enormous. Much higher R&D spending on green energy solutions would be far more effective, says Bjørn Lomborg

Around the world loud voices are calling for countries to become carbon neutral by 2050 but the costs will be enormous. Much higher R&D spending on green energy solutions would be far more effective, says Bjørn Lomborg

Earlier this month, the UK parliament declared that the planet is facing a “climate emergency,” making the United Kingdom the first country to do so after cities like Los Angeles, London, Vancouver, and Basel.

It’s a move that sums up all that is wrong with climate policy: politicians are making grandiose, fear-mongering declarations that are divorced from economic reality, as well as from what will fix the problem they claim to be addressing.

Political rhetoric is cheap, but drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions remain prohibitively expensive and technologically challenging. After all, emissions cuts have been promised (and mostly not delivered) since the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Cutting CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050 or much sooner is the ambitious goal being pushed by environmental protesters like Extinction Rebellion and endorsed by politicians around the world, including several US presidential candidates. These protesters and politicians get a lot of attention, but their proposals would incur far higher costs than almost any electorate is willing to pay.

Although opinion polls show that people care about climate change and want to spend a relatively modest amount to fix it, they want more spent on education, health, job opportunities, and social support. Most Americans, for example, are willing to pay up to $200 per year to fight climate change; in China, the amount is about $30. Britons are unwilling to cut their driving, flying, and meat consumption significantly in order to combat climate change. And although the German government prioritizes climate action so highly that it convened a “climate cabinet,” just one-third of Germans support a controversial proposed tax to reduce global warming.

The gulf between politicians and citizens is most apparent in France. The government vowed to cut CO2 emissions sharply by 2050 – but, embarrassingly, this has turned into an empty promise, with almost no meaningful measures enacted under President Emmanuel Macron. That’s because the “Yellow Vest” protest movement took to the streets to push back against the government’s fuel price surcharges, which disproportionately hit car-dependent people in rural areas.

France is not alone in neglecting its lofty promises. Recent analysis shows that of the 185 countries that have ratified the 2015 Paris climate agreement, just 17 – including Algeria and Samoa – are actually meeting their commitments.

Achieving net-zero emissions wouldn’t just cost a little more than people are willing to pay, but an order of magnitude more. The main economic models assessing the European Union’s plan to reduce emissions by “merely” 80% by 2050, for example, estimate average annual costs of at least $1.4 trillion. And Mexico’s relatively unambitious pledge to cut its emissions by 50% by 2050 will likely cost 7-15% of GDP.

A report commissioned by New Zealand’s government to study its promise of carbon neutrality by 2050 found that the annual cost of meeting this target in 2050 and each subsequent year would be higher than the country’s entire current annual budget. Moreover, this estimate assumes that policies are implemented as efficiently as possible. In reality, no government manages to do that – so the cost of becoming carbon neutral could easily double. (The New Zealand government is steaming ahead with its policy regardless.)

The costs of deep emissions cuts are so high because we are all utterly reliant on fossil fuels. Green-energy alternatives, including solar and wind, are generally not ready to compete. As a result, policies forcing people and businesses to shift to immature technologies will slow growth and exacerbate energy poverty.

This is also why the world is much further behind in its “energy transition” than most people realize. Solar and wind together currently deliver about 1% of global energy, and the International Energy Agency estimates this will reach only 4.1% by 2040. Vaclav Smil, who is Bill Gates’s favorite energy expert, says that “claims of a rapid transition to a zero-carbon society are plain nonsense,” adding that “even a greatly accelerated shift towards renewables would not be able to relegate fossil fuels to minority contributors to the global energy supply anytime soon, certainly not by 2050.”

Many of today’s panicky political declarations and climate protests are driven by the widespread belief that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told us we have just 12 years left to save the planet. This is at best a fundamental misunderstanding of what the IPCC said. The panel was asked to establish which policies would be needed to achieve the nearly impossible target of keeping temperature rises under 1.5°C. The IPCC answered that this would indeed be almost impossible, requiring a total economic transformation in 12 years.

In fact, the IPCC’s last major report said that if we do nothing to stop climate change, the impact will be equivalent to a reduction in overall incomes of 0.2-2% by the 2070s – similar to the effect of one economic recession.

Instead of pursuing costly and unrealistic emission-reduction targets, we should respond to climate change by getting the price of future green energy below that of fossil fuels so that everyone can afford to switch. A true transition requires investment in green-energy research and development.

Copenhagen Consensus, the center I lead, previously assembled an expert panel of economists, including three Nobel laureates, to discuss solutions to climate change. The panel concluded that R&D spending on green energy should be dramatically increased, to 0.2% of global GDP. This would be a less economically painful and much more effective way to solve the climate problem.

Declaring a “climate emergency” generates headlines and makes politicians and activists feel better. But empty rhetoric that ignores economic reality and common sense will not help the planet.

Bjørn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, published here with permission.

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Lomborg is such a breath of fresh air. Ignores the rhetoric and invective and actually looks rationally at the issue. Whatever your views on climate change R&D to reduce cost of moving to non-fossil fuelled energy (which is inevitable in long term) is the highest-payoff investment and will positively impact the world.

Let's be clear, this is total nonsense.

The problem with his hypothesis is that it needs energy - high EROEI energy - to do work. The relationship is based in physics (efficiencies possible but bounded). The end result is entropy, and we operate in the space between.

So you can't make a lower EROEI energy 'cheaper'. It will inevitably deliver less work per the work required to establish it. Solar power (and it's derivatives like wind and solar) is what we will end up using, by default. Our use of it will still have to fit with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But it won't be 'cheaper' until the oil-driven 'economy' tanks due to it's own lowering EROEI. At which point I wouldn't be betting on solar panels still being available....... This is why those of us in the physics/energy space, see ownership of panels and renewable infrastructure, as better money-in-the-bank, than saved-for-the-future money.

Then we have to ask why Lomborg? And the answer if Fred Singer, Jack Carter, tha Cato Institute. Behind which follow the funding.... This is not the talk-back bleating level of denial rhetoric - it's aimed at an echelon less easily fooled. So it's more cleverly written. But the message is all fossil-fuel-industry - wait, just keep on keeping on, wait some more, not yet, not yet..... just keep buying our oil.

The only answer is we will have to use less energy. The only questions are when, and if we will do it voluntarily?

Well said!
I think the key here is that we need to increase the ERoEI on carbon neutral energy sources (solar, wind, hydrogen etc.) we do this by either/or:
-increasing the Energy Returned by developing more efficient means of converting energy from carbon neutral sources into electrical energy.
-reducing the Energy Invested by improving the efficiencies in producing, installing and operating the means of converting energy from carbon neutral sources.

Incentives to develop new technology that either increases ER or decrease EI are going to be required.
This should come in the form of taxation directly on the sources of greenhouse gas emissions in order to make these options less commercially appealing. This is going to require taxation on any activity that leads to the warming of the planet with that taxation funding initiatives that offset that warming and developing technologies that allow us to move away from it in the longer term.
This is going to require taxation on coal, petroleum, production of meat etc. I have no doubt that this will be unpopular in the eyes of most people and that it will be expensive but the cost of doing nothing and the threat of extinction should be given far more weight. The majority of people are not concerned with anything but their most immediate problems but by the time the effects of a warmer biosphere become an immediate problem it will be far too late to do anything about it. Politicians need the resolve to implement the necessary policies no matter how unpopular they may be in order to avoid the catastrophic long term effects of a warmer planet.

New utility scale PV in sunny countries is now $0.02-0.03/kWh. That is cheaper than natural gas and everything else except legacy hydropower. All that we need to complement it is incremental improvement in short term (batteries) and long term (hydrogen, pumped storage and ???) energy storage. Batteries are already down to ~$0.10/kWh stored, which is good enough for homes, but will likely fall by a further factor of 4-5 over next 10-20 years as batteries get cheaper and longer lived.

So no need to worry about the future energy requirements of maintaining advanced standards of living. It is already assured at very affordable costs, and R&D will only improve the situation.

You cannot compare intermittent solar or wind with dispatchable thermal or hydro.

The cheapest and largest battery we will have not the future is a large stockpile of coal alongside Huntly.

Battery technology and economics are nowhere on the horizon to solve this.

SA requires about 6,000 mW - their new $ 100 million battery delivers 100 mW for less than 90 minutes.

Yet our wind power ~ 650mW capacity has not been generating for weeks at a time.

New smaller Gen IV nuclear or massive geothermal developments will per required if we want to eliminate emissions - there are no other option for our base loaders.

I hardly think people need encouragement from the oil companies to drive to work, or to not pay a new tax to god knows who and god knows where.

BTW these are not 'Nobel Laureates'.

"Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. ... The prize was established in 1968 by a donation from Sweden's central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank to the Nobel Foundation to commemorate the bank's 300th anniversary. As it is not one of the prizes that Alfred Nobel established in his will in 1895, it is not a Nobel Prize".

Just put up by a bank, to try and make economics sound like a 'science'. Interesting that Lomborg doesn't make this clear....

Though it would be a tough call which is more accurate, economists or climatologists.

If we do not reach carbon neutrality, then at some stage in the future most of the planet will be uninhabitable for homo sapiens. Effects include ocean acidification, anoxic seas, sea level rise, extreme continental interior temperatures, and complete ecosystem loss. The worst effects are still over a century away, but that doesn't mean they should be disregarded. At least 3 of the 5 largest mass extinction events were due to sudden sharp rises in atmospheric CO2.

Don't underestimate the adaptability of Homo Sapiens. When average temperatures dropped 800 years ago the Vikings in Greenland died out. However the Inuit spread east from Canada having a culture adapted to ice, ice and more ice. Even the worst climate change scenario will leave a few Homo Sapien living in a high valley in New Guinea.
To date actual climate change has been less severe than I expected a few decades ago; if Auckland ends up having the same climate as modern Brisbane we will survive - I'll just have to adapt to salt water crocodiles when I swim in the harbour. On the other hand the destruction of arable land and water supplies by too many people are already causing major wars that affect everyone - even NZ has Syrian refugees escaping from over grazed desert made worse by recent slight temperature rises.

Total unsupportable rubbish, might play well to luddite religio-greens ("back to the trees everyone"), but totally disconnected from reality. Humans will continue to survive everywhere on the planet, though in greater comfort, just as they previously did during paleolithic ice age and Holocene. We are becoming more and more the masters of the environment, more and more technologically capable, not less. There will be people living on Mars and the Moon within 30 years.

You've been round here long enough to know that technology isn't the issue. Energy is. Technology without energy is a car with an empty tank. It's going nowhere, whether it's fuel-injected or wick-carburettored.

as an afterthought - calling people names (Luddite etc) is just a cranial way to deny - putting down the message by denigrating the messenger. You know that, right?

Energy is a very useful way of looking at life. It explains why slavery appeared with settled farming and disappearred with the industrial age. Important as it is it is not absolutely critical - for example everyone on the earth could adopt your low enrgy lifestyle. 1000 years ago in Europe there was effectively limitless energy with trees, then it became a limit and coal took over and oil and gas merely boosted fossil fuel energy. We are close to the end of those resources. However sunlight and nuclear are effectively limitless sources of energy once we get the technology working. For the sake of my grandchildren I hope we start to curtail energy use but even more importantly actually spend research money. Artifical chlorophyll, etc.

What on earth are you talking about "Energy is the issue"? There is no shortage of energy, and never will be again, it is only a tiny ~3-4% of our economy, we have pv and sunlight, we have enough accessible fissiles to power human civilization for a billion years, we have enough accessible fusibles to power human civilisation for trillions of years more, all of which are either now economic or can be made so within a a decade or two and hydrocarbon fuels can be synthesised for ~$100/barrel using fission or fusion heat once it is needed, we are truly spoiled for choice. But with your endless doomsterism it's like you are reading from some weird Millenialist religious text holed up in an American Prepper's enclave pretending that the world is something other than what it really is. When you encounter people discussing quasi-religious theories like flat earthing or benefits of ritual sacrifices on crop yields or Malthusian doomsters or misanthropic "Vote Thanos" environmentalists you can't just sit there and nod along. I respect peoples rights to their beliefs, but I also have an obligation to call out those espousing bad ideas lest they be spread amongst the credulous without resistance.

No Foyle, you haven't been listening. Read the Steve Keen piece (up currently).

Energy is ALL of the economy. No dairying, no tourism, no transport, no processing - what you got left? SF all.

Yes, we have PV - I've lived on it for years. But you don't run the current system on PV - can't be done. I did a whole article referencing this fellow:

He was a bit smarter than you and me - follow his conclusions.

But it's those who don't look at the real world, who think it's all OK. Everywhere I sail, it's dead coral, no fish, no life. And worse every time. As are aquifer levels, soil volumes/qualities, remaining resources, sink capacities - the planet is creaking at the knees because of one species - yet you can't see it? Or don't want to?

Some cultures have wrecked their countries, but that isn't happening in NZ and we already have many laws protecting that. We have energy, a rock star economy, and the freedom to go bush, get rich or reach whatever your potential is. Some see the glass half empty, some see it half full.

I am good friends with a famous dive photographer, a guy in the business for 40 years. A guy that has a few NZGeo photos of the year to his name. Just last week he published before after photos of the kelp beds around the Mokohinau's taken by him ten years apart. In the latest it is a barren wilderness, kina having stripped it bare. Snapper of course are the natural predator for kina, so overfished now the kina are a plague. The plague has moved from Auckland out, a close relative saw it happen around Rangitoto in the 1970's and stopped diving in the 80's because it was hardly worth it anymore. My photographer friend lamented a year ago about the absence of workups on a trip from Cape Reinga to Auckland he didn't see one. He has the anectodal evidence( and a little bit of empirical) that we have really screwed our fishery, one held up as an example as sustainable to the rest of the world. Sad, very sad.

Is it really sad, or are you just saying that? Asking for a friend.
Have you ever heard of the rabbit and lynx population cycles? It's just and example of a natural system and probably too complex for most people.

Sorry Skudiv - we're talking about New Zealand. You know? Canterbury Plains? Marlborough Sounds? Southland? Have you seen what trawling has done to our sea-bed benthic communities? Do you keep track of our water-quality counts? Our soil depletion rates? We are running a vast, one-off entropic experiment on this country, same as everywhere else on the planet.

And 'getting rich' only denotes the ability to consume more high-energy-processed parts of the planet, excreting them as entropic waste.

We punch well above our weight in protected land area and have extensive marine reserves. "The network of marine areas under some form of protection has expanded to cover about 30% of New Zealand’s marine area (almost 1.3 million km2). In 2007, the government passed regulations closing nearly one-third of New Zealand’s EEZ to harmful fishing practices (e.g. dredging and bottom-trawling) to protect seabed biodiversity." We are not the same as "everywhere else on the planet". Take these ten rivers for instance:
"We analyzed a global compilation of data on plastic debris in the water column across a wide range of river sizes. Plastic debris loads, both microplastic (particles <5 mm) and macroplastic (particles >5 mm) are positively related to the mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) generated in the river catchments. This relationship is nonlinear where large rivers with population-rich catchments delivering a disproportionately higher fraction of MMPW into the sea. The 10 top-ranked rivers transport 88–95% of the global load into the sea."

I have better things to do than study minutia of data to find things to get upset about.
Name a system that doesn't excrete entropic waste.

Did you skip the chapter on nuclear energy? "If large scale extraction were implemented over thousands of years, that concentration would fall, and more uranium would leach out of the rock. That's a potential 100 trillion tons or enough to satisfy Earth's energy needs for the next billion years ... by which time the human race will probably have moved on." I wonder if the hand wringers will have moved on by then?

We have effectively infinite low cost nuclear energy options which with new Gen IV reactors produce very little high level waste - easily processed as France and UK have done for many years.

Foyle - you and I are statistical flukes; our mothers lived to give birth successfully and so did their mothers and so on all the way back to Adam & Eve. Probablity of death before birth of first child is probably less than 1% now but it used to be 50% so it is as if our ancestors had tossed a coin and it came up heads 10,000 times in a row. Civilisations are not much different - we only know of the ones that survived and just a fraction of those that died out. The world now has a single global civilisation - there is always a chance it will expire. Maybe not probable, maybe a new technology will save us but it surely makes sense to prepare for the worst and give our environment high priority.

Yeah, we are each the end result of trillions of generations of successful parents, such a weight of failure if you don't breed... I find it very distressing that everyone thinks superficial issues like environment, economics, sociopolitics or demographics are some sort of existential threat when they are so patently not. Humans only existential threat is superintelligent AI, which a majority of AI researchers think is likely to be developed within 10-20 years, and certainly <100 years. There's likely no way to stop it. All other problems are as nothing in the face of that, it will either (very optimistically) fix everything or (more likely in my view) repurpose the earth for itself and uncaringly end us, dooming our children to nasty deaths.

'superintelligent AI' - is it all it is cracked up to be? Let's say I can add two four digit numbers in 5 seconds and the computer in a nano second and a clever person in a second. What does it matter? Intelligence is overrated. Little evidence that our superiors (say all MPs) are more intelligent than the average person. The ability to construct a clear story has advantages - it sometimes helps us find and retain a superior partner - but often muscle or just dumb stubborness wins. There is plenty of evidence that success in business is more to do with single mindedness not intelligence. Even the mega-bright can live really dumb lives - eg Bobby Fischer.
However if I am wrong and superintelligent AI takes over and rules us I am sure it will leave us obvilious of the fact. Rather like President Xi and the average Chinese citizen. We will never know when the takeover occurs.
PS Thanks - good link.

Yes, we are probably going to miss 2050, there is little action, and the action cost is significant (NZ productivity commission NZD250/ton in current NZD.)
The best way to increase green energy R&D spending is for the world to agree on international carbon pricing. This will focus the R&D on green energy that is cost competitive.
The international carbon price can even start below the theoretical value by not requiring 100% inclusion of all carbon emissions, & then be ramped up over time.
The world also need to agree on audited and approved off-sets so that these can be purchased when it is cheaper to do so than pay the carbon price.
Solar is already the cheapest form of energy & battery prices are still dropping fast so that solar + battery will eventually end up cheaper than new fossil fuel alternatives. We simply have to wait for the operating costs of fossil fuel energy sites to get relatively high enough for them to be mothballed.

Enjoy the brief delusion that BAU is both cheaper and sustainable....physics will trump finance every time and whether we are willing to change (and pay) the costs will occur regardless.....better to have at least some choice about how and when those costs are incurred IMO...however I am aware I am in the minority and am unlikely to be in the majority anytime before all choice is gone.

What is an example of physics trumping finance?



Wrongly named in my humble opinion..... We can't be far off Mk2

Oh- and every collapsed Empire on the planet, every abandoned mine.....

The GFC was pure economics.

abandonment of gold standard

97% of climate scientist require global warming to be alarming, in order to keep their jobs. If they said 'global warming will cost 0.2% of GDP by 2070, then people would start to ask why we need so many assessments, research, conventions and meetings to discuss something so trivial. They would be out of a job.
Global warming research is the perfect positive feedback loop, an alarming report always requires further investigations. When I looked at what my local council was doing about climate change they were doing 4 investigations plus another collaborative initiative and looking at more cycle ways but the only thing they had that might make some difference is to plan to switch the street lights to LED which the should have done ages ago.

The irony being the estimated costs of global warming aren't alarming at all - less than 5% of global output. A pittance when compared to even a low growth scenario to 2050.
Check out this chart.
"... the estimated impact is -2.04% of income at 3 °C warming"

Too cynical. Some of the 97% yes but not all. Academics frequently are more honest than the average person - it is baked into the history of science. I think we should listen to the 97% but then ask what will the cost be and what is the best solution. That is where panic doesn't help. Also note the 97% do not agree on anything other than humanity is warming the climate. Future rises are between 1.5C and 4.5C ~ that alone should make us cautious about our solutions.
My biggest fear is that climate change is only a minor subset of the bigger problem: humanities destruction of the natural world (or environment or ecosystems). Stopping cows farting will be difficult and take time (except for cull all cows now) whereas making all bottles returnable and reusable could be done today.

The lower bound of 1.5 degrees of warming is in line with typical inter glacial warming and above the last 40 years of satellite data at 1.3 degrees of warming. It was running at 1.6 degrees/century 1910-1940 when we had beggar all industry to speck of. Sadly climate change hysteria is sucking money away from real problems that could be solved tomorrow like clean water and vaccinations.

A 1.5C rise has happened before and even this tie is not proved without doubt as being totally man made. However that doesn't mean it is not a problem. Just do a search for 'cities near sea level'; they didn't exist in typical inter glacial periods.

Google Aborigines walked to Tasmania. Mankind is very adaptable and has a lot more tools at his disposal these days.

It's the same story with sea level rise. The earth is currently below it's long term average temperature and mean reversion is a fairly well understood phenomenon.

You are comparing the current rate of change (°C/century) with the equilibrium climate sensitivity per doubling of CO2.
Two completely different and incomparable things.

Well put Lapun. C02 i merely the exhaust of our once-off demonstration that the Second Law is alive and unwell.

Whether we can keep cohesion whilst weaning ourselves off the fossilised carbon, is the only question in town. Cities will surely look different.

What I wonder about (I went to a talk by the late Jack Carter once, pushed by Joyce/English on the local Uni, I'm guessing) is what goes through the minds of the Profiles of this world. Do they have kids? Some cognitive defect that makes them think they're immune? Food for research, if academia had time. Which it doesn't.

Lomborg is to the debate what Dr. Oz is to medicine, a rodeo clown who frames his information to give audiences what they want (a quick- fix miracle cure) and cries censorship when confronted by actual scientists.

Lomborg underestimates the rate of species extinction by an order of magnitude and concludes that extinction rates are not increasing.

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