The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published its most comprehensive report so far. It finds that ‘human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming’. This has led to widespread and rapid changes in climate and biodiversity and to more extreme weather patterns, such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. What is more, the distribution of these effects is uneven, with communities who have contributed the least to current climate change being disproportionately affected.
At the 2015 COP21 climate change conference in Paris (see also), it was agreed to adopt policies to limit the increase in global temperatures to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to make an effort to limit it to 1.5°C. Global temperatures have already risen 1.1°C above 1850–1900 levels and are set to reach 1.5°C in the early 2030s. Every increment of global warming will intensify ‘multiple and concurrent hazards’.
Deep, rapid and sustained reductions in emissions would slow down the rise in global temperatures, but even with such reductions, temperatures will still exceed 1.5°C in the next few years and, even under the best-case scenario, would not fall below 1.5°C again until the end of the 21st century. Under more pessimistic scenarios, global temperatures could rise to 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century under an intermediate greenhouse gas emissions scenario and to 4.4°C under a very high emissions scenario. Anything above 2°C would be likely to have catastrophic effects. The longer countries wait to take action, the greater the rise in global temperatures and hence the greater the damage and the more costly it will be to rectify it.
‘For any given future warming level… projected long-term impacts are up to multiple times higher than currently observed (high confidence). Risks and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change escalate with every increment of global warming (very high confidence). Climatic and non-climatic risks will increasingly interact, creating compound and cascading risks that are more complex and difficult to manage (high confidence).’ (Paragraph B2)
But the report is not all ‘doom and gloom’. It is possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C or only a little over by making rapid, deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors and reaching net zero emissions in the early 2050s. Science and technology have the answers – answers that are now much cheaper and more available than back in 2015 when the 1.5°C target was agreed. But what it does require is doing ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’. And that requires political will and the right economic incentives.
The politics and economics of achieving net zero
In terms of the politics, there is general global agreement by governments about the likely effects of climate change. And most governments agree that action needs to be taken. However, there are three key political problems.
The first is that the costs of action will be borne now, while the benefits of action will accrue over a much longer period of time. This links to the second problem – the mismatch between the lives of governments and the long-term effects of climate change. If governments put off doing anything now and merely promise that something will be done in the future, they will not have to take unpopular actions, such as raising taxes on energy, private transport and certain goods or banning various activities. Future governments will have to sort things out, by when, although the problems will be greater, the existing politicians will no longer be in power.
The third problem concerns the distribution of the costs and benefits of action. The major emitters of carbon are the rich countries, while the major sufferers are poor people in countries subject to drought, flooding and rising sea levels. Not surprisingly, who should cut down on emissions and pay for the mitigation necessary in many of the poorer countries is a difficult political issue, which is why it’s much easier to say what needs to be achieved overall than precisely what measures should be taken by which countries.
These problems reflect the fact that many, if not most, of the environmental costs of production and consumption are external costs – costs borne, not by the direct producer or consumer, but by other people at other places and/or in the future.
Nevertheless, the relative costs of moving to greener production and consumption are falling. The costs of renewable energy, including solar power, onshore and offshore wind and hydroelectric power are falling relative to that generated from fossil fuels. At the same time, the take up of electric cars is likely to continue rising as battery technology improves. This does, of course, require an increase in charging infrastructure. Domestic heat pump technology is improving and home insulation methods are becoming more efficient.
Persuading consumers and firms to take account of environmental externalities could in part be achieved by education. It makes it much easier for politicians to take appropriate action now if their populations are on board. There has been increasing awareness over the years of the environmental impact of people’s actions. People have become more willing to take responsibility for the world that future generations will inherit. This is helped both by education in schools and colleges and by frequent items in the media.
But incentives also have a major part to play. To internalise environmental externalities, external costs could be taxed and external benefits subsidised.
The effect of a carbon tax on production
The use of taxes to reduce activities with negative environmental externalities is illustrated in the diagram (click here for a PowerPoint). It takes the case of carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity generation in a large country. To keep the analysis simple, it is assumed that all electricity in the country is generated from coal-fired power stations and that there are many such power stations, making the market perfectly competitive.
It is assumed that all the benefits from electricity production accrue solely to the consumers of electricity (i.e. there are no external benefits from consumption). Marginal private and marginal social benefits of the production of electricity are thus the same (MPB = MSB). The curve slopes downwards because, with a downward-sloping demand for electricity, higher output results in a lower marginal benefit (diminishing marginal utility).
Competitive market forces, with producers and consumers responding only to private costs and benefits, will result in a market equilibrium at point a in the diagram: i.e. where demand equals supply. The market equilibrium price is P0 while the market equilibrium quantity is Q0. However the presence of external costs in production means that MSC > MPC. In other words, MEC = b – a.
The socially optimal output would be Q* where P = MSB = MSC, achieved at the socially optimal price of P*. This is illustrated at point d and clearly shows how external costs of production in a perfectly competitive market result in overproduction: i.e. Q0 > Q*. From society’s point of view, too much electricity is being produced and consumed.
If a carbon tax of d – c is imposed on the electricity producers, it will now be in producers’ interests to produce at Q*, where their new private marginal costs (including tax) equals their marginal private benefit.
But this brings us back to the politics of measures to reduce emissions. People do not like paying higher taxes. In his latest Budget, the UK Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, decided not to raise fuel duties by the 12p that had been previously planned, despite fuel prices having recently fallen. Meanwhile, charging prices for electric cars have risen.
Other economic measures
A simpler method for dealing with environmental externalities is ban certain activities that omit CO2. For example, in the UK there will be a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030 (with the exception of some low-emission hybrids until 2035). In the EU there will be a similar ban from 2035. Clearly, such measures are only suitable when there are non-emitting alternatives.
Another alternative is a cap-and-trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme. It involves setting quotas for emissions and allowing firms which manage to cut emissions to sell their surplus permits to less efficient firms. This puts a price pressure on firms to be more efficient. But the quotas (the ‘cap’) must be sufficiently tight if emissions are going to be cut to desired levels. Nevertheless, it is an efficient way of cutting emissions as it gives a competitive advantage to low-emission producers.
If the problem of global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C, or only very little above, multiple solutions will need to be found and there must be a combination of political will, economic incentives and the mobilisation of scientific and technical know-how. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, stated in launching the new report:
This report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once.
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The Conversation, Stacy Morford at al (20/3/23)
Vox, Rebecca Leber and Umair Irfan (20/3/23)
Science Media Centre (20/3/23)
CNN, Laura Paddison (20/3/23)
BBC News, Matt McGrath and Georgina Rannard (20/3/23)
BBC News, Matt McGrath (20/3/23)
BBC Future, Jocelyn Timperley (21/3/23)
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (20/3/23)
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (20/3/23)
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (20/3/23)
Euronews, Rosie Frost (21/3/23)
NBC News, Evan Bush and Denise Chow (20/3/23)
- Why might countries not do ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’ to avert climate change?
- What might an optimist conclude from the ICC report?
- To what extent is climate change an economic problem?
- On a diagram similar to the one above, show how a subsidy could be used to internalise positive externalities.
- How might countries reduce the consumption of fossil fuels in the most efficient way? Are they likely to want to do this? Explain.
- Is a ‘cap-and-trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?