22 april 2019

[4C Note: We present these excerpts from Jonathan Ford's sympathetic critique of the Extinction Rebellion actions of the past week. Despite a certain dismissive tone, Ford's emphasis on a tariff barrier against carbon-heavy imports is, in our opinion, well-taken.]

Extinction Rebellion has the climate problem back to front

A different policy approach is required to make progress in driving down emissions

Jonathan Ford, Finnacial Times, April 22, 2019

[D]espite the efforts of the past three decades, the world has yet to make much progress in containing growth in CO2 emissions. True, the EU-28 cut output by 12 per cent between 1990 and 2013 to 3.42 gigatonnes, and US growth has been constrained. But at the same time China’s output increased from 2.44Gt to 10.27Gt as the country has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty; something that will continue. Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative envisions hundreds of new coal-fired power stations, of which 240 were under way in 2016. Overall, global emissions are up by 60 per cent.

Extinction Rebellion’s answer is for developed countries to go on to a war footing. They want an iron target for the UK to move to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025; a move that would entail scrapping 38m petrol and diesel vehicles over the next six years. To secure it, they favour sidelining democratic politics in favour of “citizen’s assemblies” to lead action on the environment.

Now there has always been a puritan side to the green movement; one that thinks the answer is for us to live much more modestly, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Extinction Rebellion has attracted support from the likes of the austere ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. But there are a number of reasons to believe that with this particular problem, a fusion of sackcloth, ashes and renunciation simply will not work.

The first thing is that this war will not be won in Britain, or even Europe and the US. Almost all emissions growth is in developing countries, where the priorities are understandably weighted towards economic development. Indeed our own approach to decarbonisation has deactivated some levers we could have pulled. So we have cut our own emissions by outsourcing production to cheaper, more emitting locations in the developing world.

What is needed now is a different approach. Some sort of carbon tariff would be a more effective mechanism for driving down CO2 — either by repatriating production to developed countries or establishing equivalent environmental standards in middle-income ones (as the price of tariff-free access). It would not have to apply to everything; just energy intensive industries, such as steel and petrochemicals. After all, we are presently in the daft position of subsidising domestic players in these sectors to keep them from shutting down.

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