Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus think tank and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
In their bids to showcase climate leadership ahead of the approaching United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), world leaders are once again talking of ambitious carbon reduction targets. U.S. President Joe Biden, for example, has set the goal of creating “a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050.” Most rich countries’ governments have formulated similar ambitions.
Shockingly, only one country has made a serious, independent estimate of the cost: New Zealand found it could cost 16 per cent of its GDP to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century.
Twenty-four years have passed since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the first major global agreement promising to cut carbon emissions. Since then, the world has hosted hundreds of climate summits and rich nations have reliably talked green. But emissions have kept increasing because no leaders want to stick their citizens with the huge price tag.
In a frank analysis of recent climate policy, the UN calls the 2010s a “lost decade.” It notes that the level of emissions is the same as it would have been had no policies been put in place since 2005. Just think about that: After all these summits and all these promises, when looking at the actual emissions we can’t tell the difference from the world we’re in and a world where we didn’t care to do anything about climate since 2005.
That puts the challenge facing COP26 in perspective. World leaders can choose to do what they have done over decades and contribute to yet another meeting in a world overflowing with well-meaning climate summits. Country after country will show up and make nice-sounding promises that will eventually be revealed to be just as hollow as the last decades worth of promises, because voters will reject the bill.
Or leaders could finally go down a different path.
The real problem with the current approach to climate policy is that as long as cutting emissions is expensive, leaders will talk a lot but do little. In the rich world, leaders want to avoid following in the embarrassing footsteps of French President Emmanuel Macron, who had to backtrack on a modest gasoline price hike after the “yellow vest” protests. In the poorer world, countries have much more important priorities, such as driving economic growth and getting their populations out of poverty.
What is needed is a much stronger focus on green energy research. If the world could develop green energy that was cheaper than fossil fuels, global warming would be solved. Everyone would switch – not just rich well-meaning countries such as Canada, but everyone, including China and India. Working with 27 esteemed climate economists and three Nobel Laureates, my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, found the most effective, long-term climate policy is in investing a lot more resources in green R&D.
During the 2015 Paris climate summit, more than 20 countries, including Canada, promised to double R&D spending on green energy innovations by 2020. Unfortunately, Canada and most other nations are failing at this promise, too.
Instead of making big and expensive promises that future governments will have to backtrack on once citizens protest rising power bills, leaders should immediately commit to spending much more on green R&D. Not only have most nations already made that promise, but compliance can be verified within 12 months. And the total cost for each nation will be much lower than current climate policies.
At COP26, world leaders would be well advised to not repeat what has failed the last decades, but to emphasize a cheaper, smarter way forward that will actually help fix climate change: Make sure we develop technologies that can help the whole world to switch cheaply from fossil fuels.
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