Roger Pielke Jr has been promoting his new paper in Issues in Science and Technology. The paper is called opening up the climate policy envelope and Roger has been suggesting that people should read it. I’ve read it a couple of times and there are some things I agree with, and some things that seem somewhat confused. The overall suggestion, however, seems reasonable (consider a broader range of policy options) but – unless I’m missing something – I’m not really seeing anything specific, or anything particularly insightful.
The paper criticises the use of BECCS and negative emission technologies in many of the scenarios. I think this is a perfectly fair criticism. We haven’t even really developed these technologies yet and have no real idea if they could be implemented at scale. There’s a section about how the rate at which we’re currently decarbonising is well below what would be needed if we wished to achieve some of the targets. Again, seems quite correct. Then there’s the obligatory complaints about the use of RCP8.5, which we discussed in this this post, and a dig at Kerry Emanuel. I think he misses the mark here, and one should bear in mind that Kerry Emanuel was the one who wrote a response to Roger’s 538 article.
So, some of the criticisms seem quite valid. However, one of the things I found a bit confused was the claim that
[t]he restricted policy envelope that results from the scenarios of the IPCC — typically formalized in the form of so-called integrated assessment models — is the result of two reinforcing sets of assumptions. One is that the costs of inaction will be high due to projected large changes in climate resulting from a massive increase in future emissions and resulting negative impacts on societies. The second is that necessary incremental actions to reduce and ultimately eliminate emissions will be technologically feasible at low cost, or even at no net cost at all—that such actions are economic and political no-brainers.
This doesn’t seem quite right to me, but then I’m not an expert at integrated assessment models. I thought some of these results at least emerged from integrated assessement models, rather than them being assumptions.
Another thing that seemed confused was that
[a]t the center of the current approach is a target and a timetable. The target is to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level. In the past this level was commonly expressed as 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents, and more recently has been expressed as a temperature target such as 2 degrees Celsius (2°C).
Well, stablising temperatures is not really the same as stabilising concentrations. The common target is to stabilise temperatures by getting net emissions to ~ zero. If you want to know more about this, see this comment.
The paper ends with a set of suggestions as to how we could expand the policy envelope. The responses to some of these seem quite obvious. If we didn’t include BECCS in the scenarios, then it would seem much more difficult to get net emissions to ~zero. If we abandon the 2oC target, then we’d probably make it even more certain that we’d miss this target. If we focussed less on worst case scenarios, then everything would seem more positive. However, I think it is well worth considering how we expand carbon-free energy, how we substantilly reduce our use of fossil fuels, and how we scale up new technologies.
A couple of things did surprise me about the article. There was no real discussion of how those who dispute the need for climate policy influence our ability to implement it. We’re not developing climate policy in some kind of vacuum. It’s not as if all we need to do is find the optimal policy and it will be implemented; there are many who dispute the need to do so. In some sense, there’s a whiff of deficit model thinking. Also, I didn’t see any mention of a carbon tax, which I had thought was one of the preferred policy instruments. I think the idea of us trying to expand our policy options is well worth considering. It’s just not clear in what way this article helps us to do so. Maybe I’m missing something, though, so if others have seen things that I’ve missed, feel free to point them out.