22 November 2016

The Paris agreement was never the solution to climate change

By Bjorn Lomborg

Announced with much fanfare 11 months ago, the Paris Climate Treaty finally came into force earlier this month – just in time for the election of Donald Trump to potentially render the whole thing moot.

But there’s a bigger problem for climate campaigners than Trump. It’s that the Paris Treaty will in any case have very little effect on temperature change.

It promises to keep temperature rises below 2C. But there is no way any of the Paris promises will get anywhere close to achieving this.

To keep temperature rises below 2C, we have to reduce CO₂ emissions by about 6,000 Gt across the century.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) estimates that even if every country were to make every single carbon cut suggested in the Paris Treaty, to the fullest extent possible, CO2 emissions would only be cut – provided there were no carbon leakage – by 56 Gt by 2030.

This means that even in an implausibly optimistic, best-case scenario, the Paris Treaty leaves 99 per cent of the problem in place.

So to say that the Treaty will keep us within the 2C target is nothing but cynical posturing. It’s like going on a diet to slim down, and declaring victory after the first salad.

Not only that, but keeping to these promises would be extraordinarily costly. In fact, Paris could be the most expensive treaty in the history of the world. The total cost, through slower GDP growth deriving from higher energy costs, will reach an astronomical $1-2 trillion every year from 2030.

We owe the world much more – both in terms of tackling climate change, and in terms of managing our resources better.

For example, the idea that cutting carbon will be free, or might even generate economic growth, just don’t stack up. Every economic model shows real costs.

Let’s face it, if the claims were true, we wouldn’t need the Paris treaty: every nation would stampede to voluntarily cut CO₂ and get rich.

Until there is a breakthrough that makes green energy competitive on its own merits, massive carbon cuts are extremely unlikely to happen.

That’s why I have been arguing for greater spending on R&D for more than a decade – and why I welcome the Bill Gates-led, green energy innovation fund that came out of Paris, advocated both by private individuals and by governments including the UK, the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, South Korea, and UAE.

It’s also why I think spending $100 billion on climate aid – another Paris promise – is a very poor use of our limited financial resources.

This fund is intended to help the developing world adjust to the effects of climate change and alter the energy it uses. But this happens to be the lowest policy priority of the developing world’s citizens. And funding solar panels is of meagre benefit when you consider the better, cheaper ways there are of helping the developing world more: investing in immunisation, nutrition, family planning.

While billions are lacking food, health, water and education, spending billions on solar panels first is simply immoral.

World leaders should instead advocate for an even greater investment in green energy research and development – ideally funded to the tune of $100 billion annually, which is the total needed. Such a push for innovation is the only way we can start tackling the 99 per cent of the climate problem that is not addressed by Paris.

Dr Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School.