Although plenty of people see the Guardian’s George Monbiot as an irritating gadfly (see also Gideon Rachman’s amusing account of what it’s like to work with him), I’ve long taken him seriously on climate and scarcity issues; his book The Age of Consent, in particular, contains a really excellent attempt to think through what will happen to world trade in conditions of resource scarcity.
So it was with interest that I saw on his blog that he’s officially Changed His Mind on post-Kyoto climate policy. Like me, George has for a long time been an advocate of C&C – under which countries agree a global ceiling on greenhouse gas concentrations (e.g. 350 parts per million of CO2), figure out the level of global emissions each year that will keep us below it, and then share out the tradable permits to that ’emissions budget’ on the basis of convergence to equal per capita rights by an agreed date, like 2050. But no longer. Here he is in the Guardian on 1 July:
After reading the proofs of a book by the independent thinker Oliver Tickell, to be published this month, I have changed my view. In Kyoto2: how to manage the global greenhouse, Tickell slaughters my favourite ideas(8). He shows that there is no logical basis for dividing up the right to pollute among nation states. It gives them too much power over this commodity, and there is no guarantee that they would pass the pollution rights on to their citizens, or use the money they raised to green the economy…
Instead Tickell proposes setting a global limit for carbon pollution then selling permits to pollute to companies extracting or refining fossil fuels. This has the advantage of regulating a few thousand corporations – running oil refineries, coal washeries, gas pipelines and cement and fertiliser works for example – rather than a few billion citizens. These firms would buy their permits in a global auction, run by a coalition of the world’s central banks. There’s a reserve price, to ensure that the cost of carbon doesn’t fall too low, and a ceiling price, at which the banks promise to sell permits, to ensure that the cost doesn’t cripple the global economy. In this case companies would be borrowing permits from the future. But because the money raised would be invested in renewables, the demand for fossil fuels would fall, so fewer permits would need to be issued in later years.
Tickell calculates that if the cap were set low enough to ensure that the world became carbon neutral by 2050, the total cost of permits would be about $1 trillion a year, or roughly 1.5% of the global economy. The money would be spent on helping the poor to adapt to climate change, paying countries to protect forests and other ecosystems, developing low-carbon farming, promoting energy efficiency and building renewable power plants.
In some ways, I can see the attraction too. For one thing, Oliver Tickell’s proposed approach (which you can read more about here) retains C&C’s most important attribute: it starts from where we’re trying to get to, through a quantified, binding ceiling on GHG concentrations. None of the usual crap about “aspirational long-term goals” here, then.
I suspect it’s also true that it would be methodologically far easier to cap the emissions of a few thousand refineries, cement works, coal mines or power stations – the ‘upstream’ end of the production life cycle, in other words – than it would be to cap national emissions, given that totalling an entire country’s emissions involves tracking hundreds of millions of different activities (e.g. the gas I’ve just used to cook my lunch).
But while the methodological / policy end of things does look easier under Oliver’s Kyoto 2 proposal, the politics look very much more difficult. For one thing, think of the developing country equity dimensions, which China and India showed so clearly at the G8. Oliver’s proposal effectively tells Chinese steel companies that they’ll have to compete against Japanese steel companies for emission permits in an open auction – a process that in effect takes no account of their developing status, and hence does away with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Good luck with securing agreement to that.
Secondly, allocating emission rights to states may indeed entail no guarantees that these states will then pass emission rights on to their citizens, it’s true. But the fact of the matter is that it’s those states that must negotiate any global deal – and those states that must enforce domestic level compliance with the global deal, even if the deal is done as Oliver wants it to be.
All in all, Oliver’s is a smart idea – especially its focus on a relatively small number of sites – but it’s hard to see it as feasible…