In December 2015, countries from around the world met in Paris at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The key element of the resulting Paris Agreement was to keep ‘global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.’ At the same time it was agreed that the IPCC would conduct an analysis of what would need to be done to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The IPPC has just published its report.
The report, based on more than 6000 scientific studies, has been compiled by more than 80 of the world’s top climate scientists. It states that, with no additional action to mitigate climate change beyond that committed in the Paris Agreement, global temperatures are likely to rise to the 1.5°C point somewhere between 2030 and 2040 and then continue rising above that, reaching 3°C by the end of the century.
According to the report, the effects we are already seeing will accelerate. Sea levels will rise as land ice caps and glaciers melt, threatening low lying coastal areas; droughts and floods will become more severe; hurricanes and cyclones will become stronger; the habits of many animals will become degraded and species will become extinct; more coral reefs will die and fish species disappear; more land will become uninhabitable; more displacement and migration will take place, leading to political tensions and worse.
The problem of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. This is where people overuse common resources, such as open grazing land, fishing grounds, or, in this case, the atmosphere as a dump for emissions. They do so because there is little, if any, direct short-term cost to themselves. Instead, the bulk of the cost is borne by others – especially in the future.
There is another related tragedy, which has been dubbed the ‘tragedy of incumbents’. This is a political problem where people in power want to retain that power and do so by appealing to short-term selfish interests. The Trump administration lauds the use of energy as helping to drive the US economy and make people better off. To paraphrase Donald Trump ‘Climate change may be happening, but, hey, let’s not beat ourselves up about it and wear hair shirts. What we do will have little or no effect compared with what’s happening in China and India. The USA is much better off with a strong automobile, oil and power sector.’
What’s to be done?
According to the IPCC report, if warming is not to exceed 1.5℃, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and by 100% by around 2050. But is this achievable?
The commitments made in the Paris Agreement will not be nearly enough to achieve these reductions. There needs to be a massive movement away from fossil fuels, with between 70% and 85% of global electricity production being from renewables by 2050. There needs to be huge investment in green technology for power generation, transport and industrial production.
In addition, the report recommends investing in atmospheric carbon extraction technologies. Other policies to reduce carbon include massive reforestation.
Both these types of policies involve governments taking action, whether through increased carbon taxes on either producers or consumer or both, or through increased subsidies for renewables and other alternatives, or through the use of cap and trade with emissions allocations (either given by government or sold at auction) and carbon trading, or through the use of regulation to prohibit or limit behaviour that leads to emissions. The issue, of course, is whether governments have the will to do anything. Some governments do, but with the election of populist leaders, such as President Trump in the USA, and probably Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and with sceptical governments in other countries, such as Australia, this puts even more onus on other governments.
Another avenue is a change in people’s attitudes, which may be influenced by education, governments, pressure groups, news media, etc. For example, if people could be persuaded to eat less meat, drive less (for example, by taking public transport, walking, cycling, car sharing or living nearer to their work), go on fewer holidays, heat their houses less, move to smaller homes, install better insulation, etc., these would all reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, there is the hope that the market may provide part of the solution. The cost of generating electricity from renewables is coming down and is becoming increasingly competitive with electricity generated from fossil fuels. Electric cars are coming down in price as battery technology develops; also, battery capacity is increasing and recharging is becoming quicker, helping encourage the switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric and hybrid cars. At the same time, various industrial processes are becoming more fuel efficient. But these developments, although helpful, will not be enough to achieve the 1.5°C target on their own.
Videos and audio
- We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or face more floods
The Guardian, Nicholas Stern (8/10/18)
- Rapid, unprecedented change needed to halt global warming – U.N.
Reuters, Nina Chestney and Jane Chung (8/10/18)
- Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/10/18)
- New UN report outlines ‘urgent, transformational’ change needed to hold global warming to 1.5°C
The Conversation, Mark Howden and Rebecca Colvin (8/10/18)
- Earth’s temperature to rise 1.5C as early as 2030 amid dire warnings from UN climate panel
The Telegraph (8/10/18)
- UN Climate Change Report: Everything You Need To Know
Huffington Post, Isabel Togoh (8/10/18)
- Thirty years of the IPCC
Physics World (8/10/18)
- 13 things you should know about 1.5
Unearthed, Zach Boren (8/10/18)
- Climate change impacts worse than expected, global report warns
National Geographic, Stephen Leahy (7/10/18)
- World to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, says UN panel
Financial Times, Leslie Hook (8/10/18)
- We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN
The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (8/10/18)
- Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible – if there is political will
The Guardian, Christiana Figueres (8/10/18)
- The Trump administration has entered Stage 5 climate denial
The Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli (8/10/18)
- ‘Unprecedented changes’ needed to stop global warming as UN report reveals islands starting to vanish and coral reefs dying
Independent, Josh Gabbatiss (8/10/18)
- Explain the extent to which the problem of global warming is an example of the tragedy of the commons. What other examples are there of the tragedy?
- Explain the meaning of the tragedy of the incumbents and its impact on climate change? Does the length of the electoral cycle exacerbate the problem?
- With the costs of low or zero carbon technology for energy and transport coming down, is there as case for doing nothing in response to the problem of global warming?
- Examine the case for and against using taxes and subsidies to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using regulation to tackle global warming.
- Examine the case for and against using cap-and-trade systems to tackle global warming.
- Is there a prisoners’ dilemma problem in getting governments to adopt policies to tackle climate change?
- What would be the motivation for individuals to ‘do their bit’ to tackle climate change? Other than altering prices or using regulation, how might the government or other agencies set about persuading people to ‘be more green’?
- If you were doing a cost–benefit analysis of some project that will have beneficial environmental impacts in the future, how would you set about adjusting the values of these benefits for the fact that they occur in the future and not now?
The UK government has finally given the go-ahead to build the new Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset. It will consist of two European pressurised reactors, a relatively new technology. No EPR plant has yet been completed, with the one in the most advanced stages of construction at Flamanville in France, having experienced many safety and construction problems. This is currently expected to be more than three times over budget and at least six years behind its original completion date of 2012.
The Hinkley C power station, first proposed in 2007, is currently estimated to cost £18 billion. This cost will be borne entirely by its builder, EDF, the French 85% state-owned company, and its Chinese partner, CGN. When up and running – currently estimated at 2025 – it is expected to produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity output.
On becoming Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May announced that the approval for the plant would be put on hold while further investigation of its costs, benefits, security concerns, technological issues and safeguards was conducted. This has now been completed and approval has been granted subject to new conditions. The main one is that the government “will be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to the completion of construction”. This will allow the government to prevent change of ownership during the construction phase. Thus, for example, EDF, would not be allowed to sell its share of Hinkley C to CGN, which currently has a one-third share in the project. EDF and CGN have accepted the new terms.
After Hinkley the government will have a ‘golden share’ in all future nuclear projects. “This will ensure that significant stakes cannot be sold without the Government’s knowledge or consent.”
In return for their full financing of the project, the government has guaranteed EDF and CGN a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour of electricity (in 2012 prices). This price will be borne by consumers. It will rise with inflation from now and over the first 35 years of the power station’s operation. It is expected that the Hinkley C will have a life of 60 years.
Critics point out that this guaranteed ‘strike price’ is more than double the current wholesale price of electricity and, with the price of renewables falling as technology improves, it will be an expensive way to meet the UK’s electricity needs and cut carbon emissions.
Those in favour argue that it is impossible to predict electricity prices into the distant future and that the certainty this plant will give is worth the high price by current standards.
To assess the desirability of the plant requires an assessment of its costs and benefits. In principle, this is a relatively simple process of identifying and measuring the costs and benefits, including external costs and benefits; discounting future costs and benefits to give them a present value; weighting them by their probability of occurrence; then calculating whether the net present value is positive or negative. A sensitivity analysis could also be conducted to show just how sensitive the net present value would be to changes in the value of specific costs or benefits.
In practice the process is far from simple – largely because of the huge uncertainty over specific costs and benefits. These include future wholesale electricity prices, unforeseen problems in construction and operation, and a range of political issues, such as pressure from various interest groups, and attitudes and actions of EDF and CGN and their respective governments, which will affect not only Hinkley C but other future power stations.
The articles look at the costs and benefits of this, the most expensive construction project ever in the UK, and possibly on Earth..
Hinkley Point: UK approves nuclear plant deal BBC News (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: What is it and why is it important? BBC News, John Moylan (15/9/16)
‘The case hasn’t changed’ for Hinkley Point C BBC Today Programme, Malcolm Grimston (29/7/16)
U.K. Approves EDF’s £18 Billion Hinkley Point Nuclear Project Bloomberg, Francois De Beaupuy (14/9/16)
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station gets government green light The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Simon Goodley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C: now for a deep rethink on the nuclear adventure? The Guardian, Nils Pratley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C finally gets green light as Government approves nuclear deal with EDF and China The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (15/9/16)
UK gives go-ahead for ‘revised’ £18bn Hinkley Point plant Financial Times, Andrew Ward, Jim Pickard and Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: Is the UK getting a good deal? Financial Times, Andrew Ward (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point is risk for overstretched EDF, warn critics Financial Times, Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley C must be the first of many new nuclear plants The Conversation, Simon Hogg (16/9/16)
Nuclear power in the UK National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General (12/7/16)
- Summarise the arguments for going ahead with Hinkley C.
- Summarise the objections to Hinkley C.
- What categories of uncertain costs and uncertain benefits are there for the project?
- Is the project in EDF’s interests?
- How will the government’s golden share system operate?
- How should the discount rate be chosen for discounting future costs and benefits from a project such as Hinkley C?
- What factors will determine the wholesale price of electricity over the coming years? In real terms, do you think it is likely to rise or fall? Explain.
- If nuclear power has high fixed costs and low marginal costs, how does this affect how much nuclear power stations should be used in a situation of daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand?
- How could ‘smart grid’ technology smooth out peaks and troughs in electricity supply and demand? How does this affect the relative arguments about nuclear power versus renewables?
Is slower economic growth a cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Apparently not – at least according to two studies: one by DIW Econ, a German institute for economic research, and the other, earlier this year, by the International Energy Association (see reports below).
The IEA study found that, despite global GDP having grown by 6.4% in 2014, global emissions remained flat. The DIW Econ study found that from 2004 to 2014, OECD countries as a whole grew by 16% while cutting fossil fuel consumption by 6% and greenhouse gas emissions by 6.4%.
But what does this mean? If growth accelerated, what would happen to greenhouse gas emissions? Would they begin to rise again? Probably.
The point is that various developments, largely independent of economic growth have been reducing the greenhouse gas emissions/GDP ratio. These developments include: technological advances in energy generation; the switch to alternative fuels in many countries, thanks, in large part to lower renewable energy costs; increased energy efficiency by consumers; and a continuing move from energy-intensive manufacturing to less energy-intensive services.
So if governments forced more radical cuts in greenhouse gases, would this reduce the rate of economic growth or have no effect? For a given level of technological advancement, the initial effect would probably be a reduction in economic growth. But to the extent that this encouraged further investment in renewables and energy saving, it might even stimulate economic growth over the longer term, especially if it helped to bring lower energy prices.
A big problem in decoupling economic growth from fossil fuel usage is that developing countries, which are taking a growing share of world manufacturing, are more heavily dependent on coal than most developed countries. But even here there seems to be some hope. China, the biggest manufacturer in the developing world, is rapidly increasing its use of renewables. As the IEA press release states:
In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal.
If the world is to tackle global warming by making significant cuts in greenhouse gases, there must be a way for developing countries to continue growing while making less use of fossil fuels.
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t slow global economic growth — report The Guardian, Bruce Watson (26/9/15)
Turning point: Decoupling Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Economic Growth DIW Econ, Lars Handrich, Claudia Kemfert, Anselm Mattes, Ferdinand Pavel, Thure Traber (September 2015)
World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (June 2015)
- What are the possible causal relationships between cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of economic growth?
- What incentive mechanisms can governments or other agencies adopt to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without reducing economic growth?
- Can a cap and trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme help to achieve a given level of emissions reduction at minimum cost to economic growth? Explain.
- How might the developed world support developing countries in moving to a low carbon technology?
- What factors lie behind the falling costs of renewable energy? Are these the same factors that lie behind the falling cost of oil?
- What political problems might hinder the greater production of renewable energy?
- How might an economist set about determining a socially optimal amount of fossil fuel production? What conceptual and philosophical problems might there be in agreeing what is meant by a social optimum?