UK Climate Act – flawed and unrealistic

Environmental economist and science policy wonk Roger A Pielke Jr argues that the United Kingdom’s Climate Act (2008) is flawed, being comprised as it is of unrealistic and unobtainable targets. Pielke’s opinion is to be found in a paper published this month in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters.

Based on projections of future population, economic growth and technology development, Pielke states that to fulfil its commitments Britain would have to achieve annual rates of decarbonisation in excess of 4–5%. In order to reach this target, the UK would need to match the 2006 carbon efficiency of France by 2015. That would be:

“…comparable to the building of about 30 new nuclear power plants…”

Many would agree with Pielke that the Climate Act is deeply flawed, but going nuclear on a vast scale, and in such a short time, is simply not feasible. Well, not unless planning regulations are abrogated, local democracy bypassed, and the entire programme state funded and managed.

For an expert on science and technology policy, Pielke’s implicit call for new nuclear build might appear naive. But on reading the paper it strikes me that this is but a crude means of grabbing attention. Provocation aside, some genuinely important points are made:

“[T]he focus on emissions rather than decarbonization means that it would be very easy for policy makers to confuse emissions reductions resulting from an economic downturn with some sort of policy success… a lower GDP does very little to change the role of energy technology in the economy… a more directly useful metric for policy success for efforts to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is the decarbonization of the economy, represented in terms of carbon dioxide emissions per unit GDP.”

The good news is that the UK is decarbonising faster than any other major economy; the bad news is that this correlates with a shift away from manufacturing. Compared with their fellow Europeans, Britons these days do little other than shift virtual money around and provide ‘services’ to each other. This may generate excess hot air, but it contributes relatively little to climate change.

Pielke has identified some very real problems, but at the same time he is short on policy proposals. What is important – and this is stressed in Pielke’s paper – is that policy should focus less on targets and timetables, and more on the means of achieving desired goals.