It is time for a Commission of Inquiry into the wishful thinking which has governed climate policy

I did not see myself publishing this article five years ago. Back then at a time of optimism and change. The Kyoto Protocol had just kicked in as the first international coordinated effort to curb global warming. Australia had elected Kevin Rudd with ambitious plans for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Europe was leading the way in carbon emission trading since a few years back. Obama was campaigning on global warming and change. In short, massive amount of resources and effort were dedicated to stopping climate change.

Today, greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere continue to increase at the same rate as before. This will be reported by the international climate commission IPCC’s reports over the next months. With business as usual we’ll see greenhouse gas emissions increase the same amount in the next 20 years.

Solution Ahead

It is time for a Commission of Inquiry into the wishful thinking which has governed climate policy, and to find a more effective direction. We need to settle the score with four climate myths:

  • The first myth is that international treaties can save the climate. We’ve tried for 20 years without much to show, and we will fail again in Paris in 2015. Half of the countries in world are major producers of fossil fuels and they will not simply shut down.
  • The second myth is that people can be scared into consuming less. The experiments have backfired, in part because the scare tactics are based on exaggerations which are caught out and in turn increase the number of climate skeptics. Additionally, even if green consumers are persuaded to buy climate friendly goods, they rarely reduce their total consumption.
  • The third myth is that renewable energy will be a major part of the solution over the next decades. Today 83% of the worlds energy is from fossil fuels. The same share as in the early 1990’s. Even in green scenarios there will be no more than a few percentages change by 2035. Wind and solar power will only add up to a fraction of total energy supply. Globally food will be converted to biofuel, at the expense of deforestation.
  • The fourth myth is that energy conservation will make a major contribution. More energy efficient cars are great, but the money saved by the car owner will often be spent on a trip to Bali or some other emission intensive good or service (the green rebound effect). Energy efficiency is good for the consumer but it doesn’t save the world from global warming.

The inconvenient truth is that the main climate saver for the world overall so far is shale gas replacing coal. It’s a recognized transition fuel, less greenhouse gas intensive than coal. However, in the long run explorations of shale gas will only prolong the supply of fossil fuels. Additionally shale gas is pushing energy prices down, making it harder to transition energy intensive industries with carbon tax or trading mechanisms.

Shale gas is however a sign of climate policy having an effect. The technology to extract the gas is the result of decades of intensive US research and development. The results are spread around the world by innovative entrepreneurs as the technology has been proven profitable.

The lack of success in stopping greenhouse gas emission concentrations in the atmosphere cannot be blamed on climate skeptics/deniers. The main culprits are the majority at large building climate policy on wishful thinking. We need:

  1. Strong regional and national commitments and action, lacking meaningful international treaties. For example:
  2. Low carbon lifestyles to be practical and positive, not a necessary evil we submit to out of guilt.
  3. Long-term intensive R&D effort and support for renewable energy research, following the recipe for success demonstrated by shale gas.
  4. To go beyond making green deals, such as energy efficiency in homes, purely in terms of money saving – and especially if you’re promoting cruises as a reward. We have to take a more holistic approach, not just look at one policy.


The text for this article is in part based on Stefan Fölster´s Skapa haverikommission för Sveriges klimatpolitik and Sylvia Rowley’s Could the rebound effect undermine climate efforts?

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