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TNS is 10: The Sceptical Environmentalist

30th April 2013

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Bjørn Lomborg has a plan to save the world from global warming and environmental disaster and it’s got nothing to do with Al Gore or capping carbon emissions.  The self-proclaimed ‘sceptical environmentalist’ says it’s something so cheap that Bill Gates could do it by himself, so why are his views so at odds with politicians and many others in the climate change debate? 

Bjorn Lomberg“Being sceptical used to be a very, very good thing,” Bjørn says when asked if he’s happy being known as the ‘sceptical environmentalist.’  He says being sceptical is about asking ourselves, ‘Are we really being the smartest we can be?’  The problem, he says, is that on such a politically correct issue like climate change the word ‘sceptic’ has gotten a bad rap and come to mean that you think global warming isn’t happening, that “it’s all just a bunch of poppycock.” 

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he says very emphatically.  “I’m not sceptical about the science, but I am a sceptic of the solutions that we come up with.  Fundamentally, the current approach is not working and we need to address that.” 

Initially it’s hard to tell why Bjørn seems to be a maverick in the realm of environmental activism, and why his books and opinions are the subject of academic criticism.  He’s a Dane trying to save the world from man-made disaster, he’s vegetarian and he advocates polluting less and developing better green technologies.  Where he differs drastically from the mainstream and the likes of Al Gore is his criticism of the Kyoto-style approach of solving global warming by reducing carbon emissions. 

“The current set of solutions they’re applying to it are very, very poor,” he says of plans to cut carbon emissions.  “First of all we don’t do it, because it’s politically incredibly hard to do.  But also economically it’s a very bad deal; spend a lot of money to cut carbon emissions a little bit and have virtually no impact on temperature.”  

As he explains it, the EU 2020 policy that promises to cut carbon emissions by 20% below 1990 levels within the next decade and sustain that level for the rest of the century will cost $250 billion USD per year ($20 trillion in total), but by 2100 it will only reduce temperatures by an average of 0.05 degrees centigrade. 

Cutting carbon emissions as a means to combat global warming is something Bjørn has argued against for a long time.  In 2004 and 2008 he conceived and organised the Copenhagen Consensus, an event where top economists (including numerous Nobel Prize winners) analysed solutions to the top challenges of the world, including global warming, communicable diseases, malnutrition and the like.  If we concede that we can’t afford to solve every problem in the world at once, the Consensus aimed to answer the question, ‘Which should we solve first?’  In 2004, global warming came at the very bottom of the list of priorities and didn’t fare much better in the 2008 follow-up.  “If you look at the benefit/cost rationale of spending money on a Kyoto-style approach, for instance if you tried to limit temperatures at 2 degrees or you tried to do the EU 2020 policy, it turns out for every pound you spend you will end up avoiding a couple of pence of climate damage.” 

In 2009 the Copenhagen Consensus organised the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate solely to discuss solutions to climate change and operated in the same way as the Copenhagen Consensus with economists ranking solutions with the best cost/benefit ratios.  He tells me of his frustration in 2004 and 2008 when they only discussed Kyoto-style solutions to climate change.  

“Quite frankly, that was the only thing anyone could think of back then,” he concedes, “and so not surprisingly we came out and said, ‘Those solutions are bad,’” he says on ranking the global warming solutions as very low priority.  “They are still bad, and unfortunately those are still the ones we’re focusing on,” referring to the mainstream political discussion of climate change. 

“What they found was if you focus on investing in research and development in green energy you can get much, much bigger benefits per dollar or per pound spent,” he says on the outcome of the 2009 conference. 

“What’s changed is we now have much better evidence that there is a different kind of solution that will work a lot better.”  Two of the top recommendations of the conference were geo-engineering projects along with recommendations for research and development of green energy.  He says that if we invest money in green energy research instead of carbon reductions, “You would make green energy cheaper faster and thereby reduce much more CO2 getting into the atmosphere in the long run 

This is especially important for the third world.  In the west we can invest money in building ‘expensive wind mills’ and ‘expensive solar panels’ as Bjørn puts it, “and honestly just end up spending a lot more money to cut a little bit of CO2.”  He also points out that at the moment only 0.2% of world-wide energy comes from solar panels and windmills, and if we include other green energy sources such as geothermal the figure only stretches to 0.6% worldwide.  “And remember the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2030 we will get up to 1.6% if we don’t do anything, but if we really, really try hard we’ll get up to 2.6%. So let’s not kid ourselves to believe that this is going to happen any time soon.” 

Something Bjørn reiterates constantly is the need to invest for the future because, “it’s really not going to matter at all to future generations what happens in the next 20 years,” meaning that if we spend money to build acres of windmills that won’t have any real net effect in the next few decades and beyond it’s a waste of effort and money. 

He also reiterates that cheaper green energy is extremely important for developing countries and economies, and for getting the likes of China and India to switch to less polluting technologies, countries that simply can’t afford to go green.  “If we invest in R&D in green energy and try to make future generations of solar panels and wind mills much cheaper it’s not only much cheaper because researchers are a lot cheaper than buying lots of stuff that we know is inefficient, but also if we solve the problem, for instance, if we actually make solar panels cheaper than fossil fuels, everyone will switch.  Not just rich, well-meaning westerners, but also Chinese and Indians.”

Continue our chat with Bjørn Lomborg here

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