The one million dollar question: can we solve climate change without an adequate climate policy ?
Is the development of new technologies enough to solve climate change ? Or will more be necessary e.g. do we need a climate policy besides these technologies ? And if we do, what climate policy is necessary to drive CO2 emissions to zero ?
Climate policies are considered to be the realm of politicians, however it is my firm belief that the above question should be answered by scientists, not by politicians. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but here is my view on the problem.
The economy as a complex dynamic system
The economy is a complex dynamic system with many interdependencies and feedbacks, and therefore it is not easy to find out what is the effect of a particular technology or climate policy on the whole system. In any case, making linear assumptions about the effect of a particular technology on global CO2 emissions – as so often happens - is dangerous and wrong.
I created the following back-of-the-envelope diagram of the economy and some economy related state variables. I don’t claim to know all interdependencies, or to know the exact relation of each interdependency. I just drew arrows between related state variables and I indicated a sign (+ or -) to indicate whether I believe the relation to be positive or negative.
Possible inputs into the system are drawn on the left
- (policies that) improve energy efficiency
- (policies that) promote renewable energy
- Carbon pricing
- Family planning
The output of the system is the amount of CO2 emissions per year (I could have mentioned other greenhouse gases like methane etc. as well, but I’m just trying to prove a point here).
Some assumptions I made:
The energy intensity has both a positive and a negative effect on the energy consumption
- If the energy intensity of goods and services goes down, energy consumption as a whole goes down
- However, if a good or service costs less energy to produce, then the price goes down and hence consumption goes up, according to the law of supply and demand. GDP goes up, and the resulting energy consumption also increases. This is also known as Jevon’s paradox.
Total energy consumption is also dependent on total energy availability (from fossil fuels and renewable energy).
Higher energy consumption will increase energy prices, which will in turn increase investment in both renewable energy and fossil fuel based energy. Higher energy prices will also increase investment in energy efficiency improvements.
Further, innovations in fossil fuel technology (f.i. fracking) and innovations in renewable energy are positive feedbacks increasing the profitability and hence the productivity in these technologies.
Of course we need to know the size of all the positive and negative feedbacks to say more about the matter, but I presume that a control theory specialist would consider both the inputs “improve energy efficiency” and “promote renewable energy” very inadequate controls for bringing global CO2 emissions down.
According to the diagram, it is very uncertain what the effect of technological innovations will be on global CO2 emissions.
Carbon pricing is the only input that definitely will decrease fossil fuel energy production/consumption and hence decrease CO2 emissions.
Family planning is in my opinion also crucial, as the world population is linked to a positive feedback loop that tends to rise all parameters, including CO2 emissions.
This is just a back-of-the-envelope drawing, all comments/corrections are welcome.