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Thinking on Sunday – Climate Change – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein


Global anthropogenic CO2 emissions continue their inexorable rise. The science shows that there is the increasing likelihood that the world is heading towards an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. Yet despite the multitude of research papers, articles, meetings, and political activity dissipated in the last two decades, we seem to be incapable of implementing mitigation policies that are effective. In this article, the case is made that the reason for this paralysis is that the global strategic response to climate change is intellectually and ethically flawed. An alternative, pragmatic and ethically coherent route forward is outlined.


The cornerstone international policy response to the issue of anthropogenic climate change was defined at the UNFCC meeting in Kyoto in 1997. It is the setting and striving to achieve globally agreed, national greenhouse gas (CO2 equivalent) emissions reduction targets. The logic for this strategy appears to be straightforward. It will ultimately limit atmospheric CO2 to some peak level, surface temperature increases will be abated and the negative impact on the environment and on humanity, correspondingly limited.

But how effective is this target strategy? Fankhauser(1) has argued that CO2 emission reduction targets have had some success, notably at the individual company and national level. However, he concedes that they are less successful at the international level. It is only at the global level that success is critical, yet it is here that they are demonstratively failing. In the period covered by the Kyoto Protocol (1990 to 2013) worldwide CO2 emissions increased by nearly 60%. The consensus scientific view is that the original objective of using these targets to limit the probability of surface temperature increases to less than 2oC will not be achieved. Yet, considerable time, effort and international resources have been, and continue to be, expended on implementing this strategy.

The only consistent factor that has impacted CO2 emissions has been the level (lack) of economic activity. They continue to directly track global GDP.

This approach is fundamentally flawed because it is based upon a limited perspective of the ethical issues involved and is diverting focus away from the solution.


Addressing anthropogenic climate change is driven by the need to minimise the risk and scale of any negative future impact on humanity. This is not an isolated ethical problem and cannot be successfully addressed without proper consideration of the interdependent issues relating to global energy shortage and poverty. These are:

  1. The need to dramatically increase the global energy supply in response to both population growth and the demand for an enhanced quality of life.
  2. The requirement to minimise the cost of energy for greater access and equitability in supply.

Global economic and population growth forecasts indicate that a 1.5 to 3 fold increase in energy supply will be needed by 2050 and this could be in the range 3 to 5 fold by 2100. This is a monumental challenge, even without the issues relating to fossil fuels.

The most direct route to reduce CO2 emissions, i.e. to meet the targets, would be to reduce energy supply by whatever means, including the mechanism of price increases. Not surprisingly the policies that have been pursued do exactly that. This paradox is a direct result of the limited and partial ethical picture that is covered by these targets.


“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”

― Shirley Chisholm

Ethics points us to a larger horizon and to one clear solution to the global issues of climate change and energy price and supply: the development and global deployment of clean abundant energy that is cost-competitive with fossil fuels. This needs to be the focus of international effort. Presently, the only justification for action has been the postulated negative impacts of increased atmospheric CO2. This is a sound, but entirely precautionary, response. However, if the focus is widened to “abundant, low-cost, clean energy supply”, responsive actions would be based upon indisputable global social and humanitarian needs i.e. enhancing the quality of life.

Innovative Research and Development         Firstly, it needs to be recognised that no proven, cost competitive clean energy supply system (with an appropriate scalability) exists. This may be an obvious statement but it is fundamental to developing a coherent strategy. The premature introduction of technology into the energy supply system is not only costly, but undermines confidence in the basic strategy and the technology. The energy supply sector has demonstrated neither the culture nor motivation to lead innovation in this area. Schneider and Goulder (2) argue that the private sector would respond if there was real market need and that this could be most efficiently generated by introducing a carbon tax (with the associated negative impacts of increased costs), as opposed to an increase in publicly-funded R&D investment. Although there is no market driver, there are clearly defined and immediate social needs that are not being met. This is precisely the role for the public sector. Globally co-ordinated, intensive and focussed R&D is required to address this core issue. An international “Manhattan-type” programme with open access would be an appropriate vehicle. The primary motivation would be the eventual reduction of the cost of clean energy and the commensurate increase in the scale of deployment. For publically funded R&D, the key determinants for investing in programmes would be (1) the potential for realising cost reductions in genuinely clean energy systems and (2) the potential total global capacity of the energy source (the “abundance factor”). Ultimately, cost reduction would be undertaken in a competitive market but prototype and beta site demonstrations with roadmaps for development and deployment could be used as realistic indicators of cost competitiveness.

The solution is to develop the technology and the conditions such that global supply of cheap clean energy is a competitive and profitable market for commercial exploitation. It is evident that without public intervention this will not happen in the foreseeable future.

Drop the negative target ….

            It is well-established that a policies based upon ill-considered targets can result in ideological clashes with the core problems not being resolved. In 2003 a seminal paper was published highlighting the danger of the use of a badly chosen target in the area of marine biology (3). The climate change arena has been characterised by asset of problems almost identical to those defined in this paper i.e. polarised opinions, false predictions and emotive and divisive language, coupled with counter-productive actions and inertia.

There have been many studies on the selection and effectiveness of targets (4, 5). Bridgewater (6) presented the case for using a set of criteria summarised by the acronym CUTE (Comprehensive, Understandable, Time-Bound and Enabling) when considering targets for determining public policy. The examples that were used were for intergovernmental policy setting in the environmental arena.

CO2 emission targets manifestly fail to satisfy these criteria. They are not comprehensive, because they do not address the interdependent issues of energy supply, and they are not “understandable by all” as defined by Bridgewater, as the relationship between CO2 emissions and their impact on humanity is highly complex and uncertain. It cannot be claimed that they have enabled effective policies to be implemented in a time-bound manner. This analysis would indicate that it is not surprising that they are failing.

There may be some merit for individual nations to use their own self-determined target strategy. But for this to be effective and valuable this needs to be a target that focusses on the solution, instead of the problem. A simple option would be one based upon the amount of clean energy consumed per annum (CE) as a percentage of the total energy (TE) used in that same period i.e. The Clean Energy Target (CE %):

CE % = {CE/TE} x 100

An energy supply system would be considered “clean” if the direct operational CO2 generation is insignificant (< 10 gm. CO2 eq. /kWh). In this option “clean” would not be exclusive to renewable sources and so could include nuclear energy. National Clean Energy Targets would be a direct, measurable and tangible indicator of real progress towards limiting CO2 emissions. The distinction between development and deployment would be clear and it would avoid promoting diversionary actions. It would also give businesses a clear view of the market potential.


Without the political will, no policy can be successfully implemented. The lack of positive engagement demonstrated by some nations, their leaders and citizens throughout the world is a fundamental barrier to progress. An element of culpability for this position can be placed at the scientific and political establishment for their dogmatic presentation of the science as being unequivocal. This has contributed to the serious polarisation of opinions and in some cases, to false predictions of future scenarios. The presentation of the science and, by default, the policy response as irrefutable is a misrepresentation of the reality. But, the lack of progress is not just a communication problem. The 2013 Globescan survey (7) indicates a worldwide decline in concern for climate change with a backlash against costly green energy investments in an age of austerity.

In this new strategy, the objective of the publicly funded R&D programme is to produce cost competitive clean energy. The focus on cost and global supply are comprehensible and provide a practical and humanitarian route forward. The research roadmap would be transparent and based upon a defined budget. This would avoid the haphazard national public subsidies on green schemes often driven by short-term political expedience. The vision of “a world with abundant, low-cost clean energy” is a considerably more powerful and positive message than “a world with no man-made CO2 emissions” and should provide widespread appeal.

Voluntary CE% targets could be positive in generating transitional progress, but unlike CO2 emission reduction targets they are not essential to the core strategy, simply a vehicle for enabling effective policies to be introduced. Energy supply systems will vary from country to country with available resources and the results of the R&D. There is no shortage of ideas simply the commitment and funding to effectively pursue them.

The science of climate change is extremely complex. There remain great uncertainties and quite possibly unknown parameters. But whatever its limitations, it has been undertaken using established scientific methodology and provides the best models and scenario predictions that we have. It is incumbent on the world’s political leaders to ensure that similar intellectual rigour and analysis is employed in developing a strategy and policy framework in response to these ethical challenges. To date this has been manifestly lacking. The academic community also needs to reflect upon its own contribution. Considerable funding, resources and effort have been focussed on defining the problem. It is pertinent to ask why academia has not been as engrossed and committed to finding and defining the solutions. (8)

But what if this fails? The aim of the publically funded R&D is to generate the energy supply technology so that it is competitive with fossil fuel systems. This is a sector in which truly innovative and novel solutions have not been generated or adequately pursued. It is inconceivable to imagine that if this sector was really transformed into a “knowledge-based” creative environment; clean energy would not be produced at considerably lower costs and with greater global accessibility than are presently available. Although there cannot be a guarantee that competitive prices will be achieved, credible roadmaps which indicate cost competitive solutions for some alternative energy systems already exist. There will be substantial benefits from whatever cost reductions and increases in accessibility that are achieved. If, at some stage, legislative or tax regimes need to be introduced to ensure uptake, every effort will have been made to reduce the negative input on humanity. But, great care needs to be taken; any increases in cost of energy will be have a negative humanitarian impact and will almost certainly be counterproductive (see The Price Conundrum below).

Who will pay for the R&D? This is exactly what the international leaders need to focus on. The economies of the developed world have been built upon the historic availability of cheap energy. It would both logical and ethical if the cost of the R&D was incurred by the developed world.

But aren’t the existing policies also focussing on energy? Not really. The International focus has been on negotiating on CO2 emissions and their measurement and monitoring. Countries have responded differently to these targets, but as an example, the UK has conspicuously set its own challenging CO2 emission reduction targets and has indeed claimed success in achieving these. Some of the activities undertaken in this cause are: (1) heavily subsided installations of on- and off-shore wind turbines, and domestic and industrial solar cell systems, (2) publically financed domestic and industrial heating and lighting efficiency drives, and (3) establishing a financial sector in emissions trading.

The real impact of these initiatives on the UK’s CO2 emission levels has, in fact, been minimal. The net contribution to CO2 emission reduction from wind turbine and solar cell installations requires careful auditing and there remains considerable debate over energy and carbon payback times. In this transitional period the majority of the embedded energy in establishing these clean energy systems will be sourced from fossil fuels and thus contribute to CO2 emissions. At best these energy sources can only ever provide a minority of the UK’s total consumption requirements (9). Similarly, although there are laudable arguments for enhanced energy efficiency, Jevon’s paradox (10) will come into play – whereby part of the energy saved by efficiency enhancements is simply used by consumers in some other energy dissipation context – thereby limiting any benefit. It is extremely difficult to distinguish the impact of emissions trading from other policies or market influences. There is no clear evidence to indicate that it has had, as yet, any significant impact on total CO2 emissions in the countries that are operating this system (11). The principal impact of all these initiatives has been to increase energy prices. Under the proposed new strategy wind farm, solar, CCS and other installations would be deemed as prototype test beds, funded and scaled at an appropriate level and assessed on this basis. The funding for the other initiatives could then be transferred to specific research into new energy systems.

What about emissions from aviation and shipping? The existing CO2 emission reduction targets do not include aviation and shipping. Emissions from all forms of transport and travel clearly need to be addressed in any strategy. Travel, particularly international, is an increasing lifestyle choice as living standards increase. Electric cars are fine if the power is generated from clean sources, but research into alternative clean fuels for aviation and shipping needs to be incorporated into the R&D programme. This is a particularly challenging because of the high energy densities of gasoline and diesel. Biofuels and hydrogen are being investigated with some progress, but lifecycle audits for these alternatives still indicate significant CO2 emissions.

What clean energy systems are most likely to be used? This can only be answered after the R&D, and will be dynamic (like other knowledge based industries) and resource dependent. The development of new nuclear fission technologies holds promise in the medium term but costs might be their Achilles Heel. The UK government’s announcement of support mechanisms for this industry (10) is logical and would be consistent with the proposed clean energy target. Solar energy generated in the sun-belt regions is a viable, and maybe the only, means of satisfying the global “abundance requirement” and needs urgent appraisal. In the USA, for example, it has been calculated that installations in the south-western desert areas could provide the majority country’s domestic needs. The ultimate long term nationally secure global solution may even be nuclear fusion. But there are many other potential and new energy supply options.

Isn’t the real problem, population growth? Yes, but…. Clearly the scale of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is a function of the size of the world’s population. But, this classically illustrates that focussing on the problem can obscure the development of a practical solution. The equivalent strategy to the CO2 emission reduction targets approach would be to set national birth rate reduction targets (say, something like the one child per family rule as employed in China). But all the evidence indicates the most successful, and humanitarian solution to population growth is to increase living standards. The evidence is clear-cut from many advanced nations. If clean, low-cost abundant energy were available, this would directly enhance living standards. This leads to the somewhat non-intuitive conclusion that “by reducing the price of energy (from any source!)… total energy demand will eventually be reduced” or The Price Conundrum i.e. any action that increases the price of energy will reduce the living standards of a proportion of the global population and lead to accelerated population growth and increased energy demand. Thus, until we have low cost-competitive clean energy, the most effective and humanitarian route to reduce the growth in global energy consumption (i.e. CO2 emissions) is the continued the use of cheap fossil fuel energy. It is all about the price.


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