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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

05.04.2013 | 2:00pm
ScienceThe costs and benefits of climate action: Are policymakers wrong to think we should cut emissions now?
SCIENCE | April 5. 2013. 14:00
The costs and benefits of climate action: Are policymakers wrong to think we should cut emissions now?

Climate change optimists Bjorn Lomborg and Fraser Nelson published articles over the Bank Holiday weekend claiming current policies aimed at cutting emissions are impoverishing us needlessly – warmer temperatures will actually make us richer, and reduce winter deaths, they say. In a leader piece, the Sunday Times says Lomborg’s arguments “make a lot of sense”, and that the government has failed to take account of the costs of its green policies. But does the claim that we shouldn’t try to cut emissions now stand up?

The articles claim the UK government has got it wrong on climate change. With carbon-cutting policies like supporting renewables and energy efficiency through levies on  energy bills, they say the government is making it harder for people to heat their homes when in fact, some warming will be good for us, reducing winter deaths and boosting crop yields. 

Benefits of warming 

The articles claim climate change’s benefits will include increased crop yields and a reduction in winter deaths under warming. Indeed, at this level, Lomborg – whose article appears to be based on testimony he gave before US Congress last month – says climate change of between one and two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will provide a net economic benefit globally before around 2070, when he says the level of impact will turn into a net cost. 

What will climate change mean for the UK? A report last year by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) shows there may be some increased crop yields in the UK by the 2080s, as the climate warms. Under its ‘medium‘ emissions scenario, which assumes a mix of technologies to produce energy, it says there could be increased wheat yields due to higher temperatures, as well as opportunities for UK farmers to grow new crops such as blueberries. The biggest possible benefit for the UK appears to be reduced winter mortality – Defra predicts there could be between 5,000 and 24,000 fewer premature deaths from the cold. 

But on balance, it’s doubtful the benefits of climate change will outweigh the risks in the UK – even below two degrees of warming, according to Defra’s report. While we may be experiencing better wheat yields in the 2080s, it looks like there will be plenty to worry about: Defra says possible impacts will water shortages, and an extra 1,000 to 6,000 summer deaths. 

Flood damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure emerges as the clearest risk. In England and Wales alone, the annual cost of flooding is expected to rise to between £2 billion and £12 billion from £1.4 billion today by the 2080s, dependent on “the location and pattern of future development and level of additional investment in flood risk management (by government and local communities), as well as changes to the hydrological cycle and rates of sea level rise…”

The report illustrates all of the potential impacts in this graphic:

Screen _shot _2012-01-26_at _15.25.56

Source: Defra (click to enlarge)

And this is only looking at the UK. In other countries, especially where it’s hotter, the effects of one to two degrees warming are expected to be more negative. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fourth assessment report says the global impacts of a 1.5 degree warming will include widespread coral die-off, increased water stress for hundreds of millions of people, damage from droughts, heat waves and floods, and increased species extinction rates. And the clear positives? They mention that farmers at higher latitudes may see an increase in cereal productivity, but that this effect is limited as temperatures rise.

According to the IPCC, it will be possible to adapt to the effects at this level of warming, but that the cost will be high. 

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 At 13.40.32

Source: IPCC

Act now, or act later?

The articles highlight a problem with climate policymaking: we don’t necessarily see the benefits of extra spending to mitigate climate change straight away. All three articles criticise the government’s decision to fund the decarbonisation of the UK power sector through charges on energy bills, for example, saying we’re paying more for little immediate benefit. It all boils down to whether we should act now, or whether it makes more sense to tackle climate change later.

Lomborg argues that because anything we do now will only have a measurable impact at the end of the century, there is little point in making dramatic emissions cuts. 

He acknowledges this course will be expensive. The cost of climate change will be around £22 trillion over the next 200 years, according to modelling he cites by Professor William Nordhaus at Yale University, which weighs up the costs of warming against the benefits. Lomborg claims that by that stage, however, global GDP will have grown so much that the cost of climate change will be tiny in comparison to global wealth. In the meantime, his argument goes, governments will have had enough time to develop much better renewable technologies that will wean the world off fossil fuels. 

Risk analysis

So is it worth acting now with strategies like the UK’s Climate Change Act to avoid the worst effects of climate change, or should we accept that climate change will offer some benefits and wait till we’re richer to deal with it when it gets worse? Both decisions involve weighing the costs of a particular action against the benefits. The Sunday Times says that with current efforts to tackle climate change, 

“policymakers in the West have lost sight of the importance of weighing the costs of warming against the costs of trying to prevent it.” 

Yet Dr Simon Dietz, lecturer in environmental policy at the London School of Economics points out that such analysis was the main focus of analyses such as the Stern Review , which concludes “significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions” are needed worldwide.  Since the Stern Review came out in 2006, “the consensus among economists on this has only got stronger”, Dietz says. 

Nordhaus himself has disagreed with the idea that it’s better to delay action on climate change, too. In an article last year, he says

“My research shows that there are indeed substantial net benefits from acting now rather than waiting fifty years. […] Waiting is not only economically costly, but will also make the transition much more costly when it eventually takes place”.

Current UK policy is based on Stern’s assessment that averting climate change is only going to get more expensive as the years progress. David Kennedy, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s climate change advisor, tells Carbon Brief:

“Costs and risks would be much higher with a failure to invest in low-carbon technologies over the next two decades.”

Dietz says far from giving a more realistic cost-benefit analysis, most discussions that focus on climate change’s beneficial effects ignore the risks climate scientists have identified. For example, that the IPCC predicts there could be as little as 1.5 degrees warming – or up to as much as six degrees by the end of the century. He says:

“If warming occurs at the more severe end, this will have significant impacts on the environment, economies and societies. Most people who advocate significantly reducing emissions are looking to avoid that severe outcome. Only by focusing on the most optimistic outcomes and ignoring the element of risk can you come to this kind of conclusion”.

Past two degrees 

As a 2009 paper in the journal Nature explains, the level of current emissions in the atmosphere means we are already on the path to one degree of warming. Anything governments do now to tackle climate change will only decide how far the climate goes beyond that point.

Dietz tells Carbon Brief that policies we make now will decide how far past two degrees the world gets:

“Economists agree that beyond about two degrees, warming climate change will be costly, and the more climate change is left to unravel, the worse it will get. We are in fact committed to much of the first two degrees warming as a result of past emissions, so we are deciding right now on whether to try to avoid the bit of climate change that everyone agrees is costly.”

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