What will it cost to get greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero by mid-century, and are people around the world prepared to pay it?
This was a question posed by the Danish thinktank head Bjørn Lomborg for a column in the Australian on Saturday.
In the wake of the Glasgow climate summit, Lomborg argued that asking voters to “pay for these draconian climate policies” was proving difficult for politicians.
But a key claim made in these columns – and one that appears in other Lomborg articles going back to October in the likes of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post – has frustrated scientists, who are accusing him of taking their modelling work about climate policies in the US out of context.
Lomborg wrote in the Australian that a study “in the renowned journal” Nature, “shows that reducing emissions 95% by 2050 – almost Biden’s promise of net zero – would cost 11.9% of gross domestic product, or more than $US11,000 ($15,300) for each American citizen every year”.
That seems like an eye-watering figure, or in Lomborg’s words “spectacularly costly”.
The cited figure does appear in a supplementary section of the paper. But the authors of the study (which actually appeared in Nature Climate Change, not Nature) have told Temperature Check they have been asking Lomborg since early November to stop making that claim.
Prof David Victor, of University of California San Diego, said Lomborg’s summary “took the results out of context and used them for a purpose that we explicitly said they were not to be used, and which he was reminded of when he asked for the underlying data”.
The study used models to examine the methods and costs of reducing emissions through state-based policies compared with nationwide approaches.
But the authors say that as they model different levels of ambition, the dollar numbers produced by the model become less reliable.
They say that’s why the model’s outputs for beyond 80% were only placed in the supplementary section of the paper as a way to show the sensitivity of the modelling, rather than to deliver a genuine cost estimate.
Dr Wei Peng, of Penn State university and lead author of the study, said she and her colleagues were “frustrated with Lomborg’s misinterpretation of our study”.
In late October Peng emailed Lomborg saying the modelling results for emissions cuts at 95% “was not well calibrated, and the cost number is likely to be off”.
“I hope people won’t take the high mitigation cost out of context,” she told Lomborg.
Victor said Lomborg’s use of the figure was “obscenely reckless” in the context of “serious scientific analysis” and wrote to him in early November.
In that email, seen by this column, Victor asked Lomborg to “please correct the record and avoid any further misinformation on this front”.
Temperature Check asked Lomborg why he had continued to use the figure after being contacted by the study’s authors. Lomborg defended his use of the figure, saying it had appeared in the supplementary section of the paper under a heading “Mitigation costs for 95% decarbonization” and that material in supplements was also peer reviewed.
He said: “My sentence in the op-ed faithfully summarises just that. It is possible that the authors now feel that their result is politically inconvenient or undesirable, but that is no argument against communicating it.”
To pay or not to pay
Also in the op-ed, Lomborg gave examples of where voters around the world had rejected new policies to lower emissions because of their cost.
He cites a survey, also from the US, where he says “most respondents were unwilling to spend even $US24 a year”.
The survey is from September 2019 – right in the middle of the presidency of Donald Trump, who thought climate change was a hoax and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement because he said it was costing Americans too much.
Yet the same survey also found 60% of people would support raising taxes on companies that burned fossil fuels “even if it may lead to increased electricity and transport prices”.
Lomborg wrote that people in Switzerland had “said no to a new carbon tax” without outlining that the country already has a price on greenhouse gas emissions of $180 a tonne.
He was referring to a referendum in June where Swiss voters narrowly rejected raising the cost to $320 a tonne, by a margin of 51.6% to 48.4%.
In emerging economies, Lomborg said, leaders saw demands to reach net zero by 2050 as “unjust because it stopped poor countries from developing their economies”.
Lomborg then quoted the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, from an article he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, saying African nations should be allowed to move more slowly away from fossil fuels, without mandates on solar and wind power.
He quoted Museveni as saying: “Africans have a right to use reliable, cheap energy.” But the full stop came too early. What Museveni actually said was: “Africans have a right to use reliable, cheap energy and doing so doesn’t prevent the development of the continent’s renewables.”
Not a net zero plan
In the words of Angus Taylor, Australia’s emissions reduction minister, this week: “The Government’s Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan outlines how Australia will harness low emissions technologies to meet its 2050 net zero goal.”
The Morrison government keeps saying this. But its own report on the modelling into its “technology not taxes” plan to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 shows it won’t get Australia to net zero.
According to that report, the technology plan will leave the government about 226m tonnes short of net zero. That’s almost half Australia’s current annual footprint.
To make up for that huge shortfall, the government’s modelling report says Australia will buy 94 megatonnes from international offsets, save an unlikely 38Mt from controversial negative-emissions technology not mentioned in its plan, and then reach into the unknown to find another 94Mt from other future technological breakthroughs.
So the government’s plan outlines how it will get a little over halfway to net zero.
Taylor made his remarks as the government released its latest quarterly statement on greenhouse gas emissions.
He talked of a “continuing decline” in emissions, even though over the last quarter, emissions went up slightly. Over a 12-month period to June, emissions were down by 10.8Mt.
But thanks only to a glaring error that found its way on to page one of the Australian on Tuesday, Australia’s emissions were “almost 500m tonnes lower in the year to June compared with the previous year”.
If only getting to net zero were that easy.