LTM Lecture July 2009

Decarbonisation and You – 30 June 2009

A Lecture by Professor Gwyn Prins at the London Transport Museum

June 30th saw the continued establishment of links between the London Transport Museum (LTM) and the Independent Transport Commission with a breakfast talk by Professor Gwyn Prins of the LSE. The business breakfast is part of the 2009 Thought Leadership programme developed by London Transport Museum and Eversheds LLP. This event was chaired by Dr David Quarmby, chairman of the Commission, and delivered at the museum to a small group of sponsors and corporate members pre-invited by the LTM.

Lecture Summary

Gwyn Prins’ lecture raised a number of challenging and provocative ideas which will almost certainly be of interest to members. This note offers a summary of his key arguments, some of which are developed in the paper by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenger titled ‘The Emerging Climate Consensus’ .

Professor Prins began the talk by stressing two related points. First he decoupled the benefits of adopting decarbonisation from the global warming apocalypse promulgated by environmental lobby groups. Second, he emphasised that climate science is an extremely uncertain discipline, throwing up every year new insights into the how and why of climate change. It is therefore important that policy reflects the uncertainty in the scientific position, and makes allowance for the possibility that significant changes could result in knowledge and forecasts.

With this in mind Prins criticised the 2008 Climate Change Act as unworkable since, in his view, it adopts unreachable decarbonisation targets (at a rate not yet achieved in any developed nation), and places too much faith upon carbon trading and offset schemes. In a global market, he argued, these policies encourage inefficient carbon use elsewhere, and subsidise foreign governments, particularly China. Prins prefers the approach of Japan, which has committed to a much more modest but realistic set of targets, and which focuses policy on increasing carbon efficiency rather than on carbon trading and offset schemes.

To sum up the policy challenges ahead, Prins used the equation known as the ‘Kaya Identity’ which relates those factors that determine the level of human impact upon the climate. This states that emissions can be expressed as the product of four inputs:

  1. Global population. Not easy to reduce the number of people in the world.

  2. Economic output. The reduction of economic activity by raising costs (taxes for air travel, forced carbon offset, etc) is the favoured policy of the current administration. This is unlikely to be popular and will be detrimental to business.

  3. Efficiency of Carbon use. Technologies can be developed to use less hydrocarbon fuel and thereby cut emissions. Japan, the most carbon-efficient nation on a per capita basis, shows that public/private partnerships can work when devoted to new technologies and to more efficient production.

  4. Energy type. Moves can be made towards non-hydrocarbon fuels, as well as carbon neutral fuels. Such policies require care: the first generation of bio-fuels have been fraught with unintended consequences, such as deforestation and increasing food scarcity. A second generation of biofuels using micro-organisms, backed by Shell and others, are being developed.

These two last factors, Prins suggested, ought to be the prime focus of decarbonisation policy. The reductions they would bring in cost, as well as increases in self-sufficiency arising from a move away from oil and gas dependency, would bring wholesome benefits besides those of limiting our impact on the climate.

For transport industries Prins suggested that they steer clear of climate change ideology, and focus instead on reducing carbon emissions by increasing efficiency and sponsoring fuel and technology innovation. He also recommended that industry leaders talk up repeal of the Climate Change Act 2008 in favour of a more realistic policy.

Details of the talk are due to be posted on the LTM site at a later date. In the meantime, for further work by Gwyn Prins, and for more information on some of the above, the following links may be helpful (NB. The ITC does not endorse the content of external sites):

Time to Ditch Kyoto – Nature (requires subscription)

The ‘Kaya’ Identity and the Conservation Bomb

The Flawed Logic of the Cap and Trade Debate – Yale Environment