FT Energy Source Bjørn Lomborg answers your questions on geo-engineering and the cost of avoiding climate change

Bjørn Lomborg, the author of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’, now believes reaching an agreement at Copenhagen is vital. His Copenhagen Consensus has published a paper calling for geo-engineering measures, such as deflecting sunlight from the face of the earth, to be considered. Lomborg answers readers’ questions below.

Update: Thanks to everyone who participated. We are no longer taking new questions.

Questions are in bold:

Don’t you think that by placing too much emphasis on techniques such as geo-engineering, we risk relying too heavily on highly risky scientific endeavours (more risky for the environment, I would argue, than reducing carbon emissions) with climatic effects that we still understand relatively poorly?
Jeremy Whipp (by email)

BL: You’re quite right that there should be an informed, ethical discussion about climate engineering. And I should underline the point that the research paper we released last week – on the costs and benefits of different climate engineering solutions – is just one out of a series of papers that the Copenhagen Consensus Center is releasing this month. In each paper, different climate economists look at the costs and benefits of different responses to global warming, whether it’s cutting carbon, methane or black carbon, planting more forests, etc.

To answer your question: there are risks to be considered, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that other possible solutions to global warming – like the one we focus most on, carbon cuts – are risk-free. Think about what happened with bio-fuels – and think, also, about the possible impacts on free trade. And also consider the boondoggle that politicians are likely to make – the Waxman-Markey Bill was 1400 pages long, gives pay-offs to everyone imaginable, but does virtually nothing to actually reduce temperatures.

Are there any new pieces of evidence available now, that made you change your mind, which were not available when you wrote your earlier books? Or are you simply interpreting the same data differently?

Do you believe that the analyses and recommendations of the UN climate panel adequately represent the consensus among leading climate researchers? – Nicolay Worren, Oslo (by email)

BL: In both my first Danish book in 1998 and the English version of The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, I stressed that man-made global warming exists. In Cool It, I wrote: “global warming is real and man-made. It will have a serious impact on humans and the environment toward the end of this century”. What I have also consistently argued is that there are other global challenges that we must also address, and that some of the extreme suggestions about global warming are overblown. My view is that the careful research of the United Nations panel of climate change scientists, the IPCC, is the best guide to what we can expect from global warming. The IPCC’s report writing process is robust and custom-made to weather criticism.

- Don’t you fear that if we “advanced industrialised” countries can’t develop a sustainable lifestyle we won’t have the moral authority to cooperate with developing countries to the same? Matthew Bates

BL: I think that one of the real problems we have, in terms of rich nations’ “moral authority”, is that there are so many problems prevalent in the developing world today that we could fix incredibly cheaply, that we do not engage with. For our project, Copenhagen Consensus 2008 last year, we looked at 10 different major global challenges and investigated the costs and benefits of different solutions. The project highlighted how cheaply we could address problems like malnutrition and goitre, or get clean drinking water to those that lack it.

In terms of global warming, our biggest challenge is ensuring that the entire world – and not just rich countries – can shift away from reliance on fossil fuels. I’m not convinced that a global deal on carbon mitigation is the best way to achieve that transformation. Finding the best ways to respond to global warming is one of the purposes of our new project, Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, which highlights the costs and benefits of different ways of responding to this challenge.

- In what ways do you think we can work with developing countries to say, for example: “Look, we really messed ourselves up with (for example) not cultivating more rail systems or better public transportation systems. In your progress, you can achieve our lifestyle, just don’t become EXACTLY like us.” And so to help them develop a good, yet sustainable lifestyle and infrastructure? –
utzangrilli (Full question)

BL: One thing I think that it’s really important not to forget is that fossil fuels are currently helping billions of people – particularly in India and China – achieve a standard of living that was unimaginable even for their parents. Industry – which relies on cheap, prevalent fossil fuel – is lifting billions out of poverty.

I think, in terms of identifying a sustainable response to global warming, we need to first acknowledge that point, and then look at the best way to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels, globally. We will never get these newly not-poor to pay substantially more for shifting away from fossil fuels. Instead we need to make sure that green technologies get so cheap that everyone will want to buy them.

- Why do you think it is that no one seriously questions US policy on petrol taxation? Increasing the cost of petrol to Americans would force their society to use their petroleum resources more efficiently. Europeans do quite well with petrol costing over 1 Euro/litre. I can not see that Mr. Obama has mentioned an increased tax on petrol as an option for the US economy
– Eric Toogood, Norway (by email)

BL: This really points out how difficult and unpopular a narrow focus on carbon mitigation is. Consider how – when he was vice president – Al Gore pushed so hard on the ‘Btu tax’, trying to institute a tax on energy that would have raised the cost of gasoline by 7.5 cents per gallon – but ended up casting the deciding vote to increase the federal gas tax by just 4.3 cents per gallon.

- We’ve seen “unconventional” shale gas techniques push up North American reserves, and even displacing coal on price sometimes. Could the third generation of gas after town gas and conventional gas provide the bridge fuel that some propose?
Nicholas Grealy (by email)

BL: These technological breakthroughs are obviously really important. But to turn your question around: if we are using this as a ‘bridge fuel’, what are we building a bridge to? If we are going to move away from reliance on carbon-based energy sources, we need to ensure that alternatives become cheap, effective, and competitive. That’s where I believe that a technology-led policy approach needs to be a bigger part of our thinking today.

I am curious as to your take on what IP consensus will come out of climate change negotiations. Do you think a new institution is necessary? Also, costs of a patent pool or patent trust fund as the only mechanism to tackle IP issues will be prohibitively high. What do you suggest are other mechanisms Copenhagen may take to facilitate the diffusion of patented technology? Govinda Avasarala (by email)

BL: This underlines the need for public R&D spending – like we see in the medical sector – to ensure the needed technology breakthroughs are made. Because another problem, aside from those that you point out, is that many technology breakthroughs will be hard to capture for private benefits, because the first few generations of many innovations won’t really create revenue – it’ll be the later generations of developments that do.

I am interested in your view on the relationship between emerging and established economies when it comes to battling climate change.  Seems to me that even with the will to drive this through, some large emerging economies may actually struggle to do so due to the increased pressures of food shortages and social unrest. Would that mean a global agreement requires significant redistribution of wealth from established to emerging economies to compensate for lost wealth creation? If such a solution does not exist, how would you rate the likelihood of armed conflict to align interests longer term? Nicolaj Kundert Jensen,  London, UK (by email)

BL: I think that the huge division between developed and developing countries could better be addressed through direct, efficient policies like tackling malnutrition, communicable diseases, sanitation, education, etc, rather than through indirect, inefficient climate policies that would do a lot less to tackle the problems that you mention.

- Why do you now believe an agreement is “vital” at Copenhagen when there is increasing evidence that man-made CO2 emissions are not the main driver of climate change and global temperatures look as if they might have reversed their upward trend since around 2003 ?
I preferred your previous position from the “Copenhagen Consensus” that there are other much more critical issues to focus on which would bring more definite and concrete outcomes for far less financial outlay.

BL: It is absolutely true that there are global challenges where we could achieve very meaningful results for relatively small investments – malnutrition is one of the most obvious examples. Global warming is likely to mean more malnutrition in some areas, but we would achieve a lot more through direct malnutrition interventions than through indirect, global warming policies. This is a really important thing to acknowledge, and it’s often missing from our discussion about global warming. But I also think that we need to look at how we are going to respond to global warming. And what I think is vital is making sure that the response is the smartest one possible.

- How can you separate natural climate change from man made climate change?
Surely, unless we can do that we do not know what level of action to take to mitigate our impact on the climate.
Robert Davies

BL: I think that the best starting point is to consider the work of the IPCC in this regard.

- In your view, to what extent do laziness and a selfish attitude of people contribute to the views that focus on potential extra costs of being more environmentally friendly? My impression is that there are certain people who like to protest against environmental initiatives just to cause controversy or avoid the effort of reading on the side of the bin which one is for recyclables. Similarly, when corporates do not want to change their ways, they ignore the savings from switching off lights and complain instead of the cost of reviewing their practices.  – Financial analyst

BL: I think the really important thing we need to do is to ensure that a switch away from carbon-based energy sources is achievable, affordable and attractive – and for the entire planet. Smaller efforts – like you or I turning off our lights – are not bad in themselves but do very little to combat global warming, so it’s about changing the energy infrastructure rather than a futile attempt to change human laziness and selfishness.

My question for you Bjorn isn’t geo engineering a band aid approach that will still allow some very bad outcomes for human food production? Simply reducing the temperature, but allowing oceans are being acidified by absorbing more carbon dioxide, the loss of shell fish and coral will hurt food supplies of fish at the least, and cause loss of bio diversity at worst. - Eliota1 (full question)

BL: In a previous answer, I stated my view that it’s important to acknowledge that all of the possible responses to global warming – including carbon cuts, which we are heavily focused on now – carry risks. I’d add here that: we have a problem, and we’ve got some different options. One – climate engineering – appears to be incredibly cheap but potentially very effective, while another – carbon cuts – appears to be very expensive but not particularly effective. I think that it’s time to more seriously discuss both of these options – and the other possibilities highlighted in the research that the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate is launching this month at www.fixtheclimate.com.

Recent science (Meinhausen et. al, 2009, Allen et al, 2009) suggests that we need to totally decarbonise global emissions before 2040 to stand a 75% chance of limiting global warming to no more than 2degC by 2100. Besides geoengineering ideas, what would be your priorities for achieving this target? What about the Desertec idea? - the1nigel

BL: That indicates that maybe the target is not very well founded. The first peer-reviewed study from 2007 that analyzed the basis for this target found that the “target is supported by rather thin arguments, based on inadequate methods, sloppy reasoning, and selective citation from a very narrow set of studies.” Richard Tol traced back the arguments for this limit to studies with little scientific or economic merit, often dramatically misrepresenting the literature, and concluded: “the 2°C target of the EU seems unfounded.”

Personally, I think the geoengineering debate should really take place after Copenhagen, since the importance of this treaty really is to block/slow down current trends in environmentally-unsustainable development/growth. Dr Bjorn, by further exposing the geoengineering options, aren’t we opening a door for countries/negotiators that are still reluctant towards climate regulations to escape through?
jshell (full question)

BL: Politicians from rich countries met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and promised to cut emissions by 2000 – but that didn’t happen. In Kyoto in 1997, we saw leaders promise even stricter reductions by 2010, yet emissions have kept increasing. My fear is that leaders will meet in Copenhagen this December to agree to even more of the same – drastic reductions in emissions that no one will live up to. The real risk is that we waste another decade without really tackling global warming. That’s why I think that it’s important to have a discussion now – in these short months before Copenhagen – about all of the policy options, and which ones are smartest.

Could you comment on the practicality of cap-and-trade.
I have a problem with any mechanism to reduce CO2 emissions that does not follow the money and does not clearly demonstrate the success of the measure.
Henk J. Alkema

BL: Most economists think that in principle cap-and-trade and a carbon tax are almost equally efficient – the problem with cap-and-trade is that it is much more open to political maneuvering and inefficiencies, as evidenced by the Waxman-Markey Bill which excludes vast swathes of carbon-emitting industries and gives implicit and explicit subsidies to many others. In reality, cap-and-trade often amounts to very little, and therefore a carbon tax is more honest and more likely to yield results. Of course, if our goal is to reduce climate change impacts, our research has shown – and will show – that there are many other, even more effective ways to do so.


Related links:

Sceptic switches tack
Bjorn Lomborg’s change of mind: a climate change deal IS important