The Fig Leaf of Targets and Timetables

June 2, 2008 |

by Michael Shellenberger

Sometime in late 2006, American climate activists got the idea that one of the highest priorities of the movement should be to pressure politicians to endorse the goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. This goal is broadly consistent with reducing global emissions 50 percent by the same date. Rallies were held. Protesters formed the words "80 by 2050" with their bodies so they could be photographed by helicopters.

The effort worked. Presidential candidate John Edwards was one of the first to state in emphatic terms that he would enact laws lowering emissions 80 by 2050, and Clinton and Obama soon followed. California Governor Schwarzenegger committed the state to the goal. Today, support for 80 by 2050 is seen as the litmus test for seriousness for action on climate.

One of the leaders of the "80 by 50" campaign was Bill McKibben, the environment writer who wrote a seminal book on global warming, The End of Nature, in 1988. Earlier this year he announced, following NASA scientist James Hansen, that the goal of climate activists, and politicians who care about global warming, should be to return the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm for short). Having established 80 by 2050, McKibben is now upping the ante, starting a new web effort called

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Reducing emissions 50 percent by 2050 is viewed by many if not most scientists as critical to keep atmospheric emissions to 450 ppm, which is seen as a way to prevent catastrophic and irreversible levels of climate change, namely the loss of two large land-based ice masses, the Greenland ice cap and the West Antarctica ice cap which, if they slid into the ocean would raise sea levels. McKibben, following Hansen, now says that 450 ppm is too dangerous.

In setting the marker at 350 ppm, Hansen and McKibben say they are being more true to the science and more cautious about the risks. Politically, they serve as a left flank to progressive Democrats in Congress, and they likely hope that in staking out a more extreme position they will provide political cover to their allies.

At first glance, the demands for "80 by 50" and 350 ppm, makes sense. The conventional wisdom among activists is that every movement needs a goal - a simple way to state its demands and measure its success - and that goal should be more than is politically possible now so that it makes action by politicians easier.

But in the case of global warming, the focus on long-term goals has had the opposite of its intended impact. The dominant global warming legislation, the Climate Security Act sponsored by Senators Lieberman and Warner and modified by committee chairperson Barbara Boxer, says it would nearly achieve the 80 by 2050 goal. But in order to contain energy costs - which must increase dramatically for cap and trade to work - the legislation allows firms to delay emissions reductions long into the future, postponing action until after many members of Congress have either left Washington or this world altogether. (If they are still living in 2050, Sen. Boxer will be 110, Schwarzenegger 103, and Lieberman 108.)

The cost-containment provision contains something known as an "emergency off-ramp" which allows firms to borrow emissions from the future so as to avoid reducing emissions today. In addition, the legislation contains various measures to keep the price for polluting well under $35 per ton of carbon dioxide, less than the price for CO2 in the EU, where a coal-building boom is underway.

According to an analysis by World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, the result would be few if any emissions reductions before 2025, 13 years after the bill's start date. More likely, U.S. emissions would continue to increase at the same rate, roughly .5 percent per year, as they have since 2000.

If energy prices continue to rise over the next two decades, as the energy demands of China and India continue to skyrocket, pressure will grow - not just from the fossil fuel industry but also from consumers - for Congress to simply delay compliance. No doubt Congress will find ways to do this while still allowing members to affirm their commitment to reducing emissions 70 or 80 percent by 2050.

Much of this is already playing out in California under the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard. California utilities will likely be unable to meet the state's "20 by 20" target - 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 - and will instead pay a relatively modest fine, $25 million, maximum, to avoid compliance. University of Wisconsin energy expert (and UC-Berkeley Ph.D) Greg Nemet writes:

As the best sites for renewables are used up, i.e. the windiest and sunniest sites with access to transmission capacity, the stock of inexpensive projects is dwindling and marginal cost of renewables capacity is rising. Improvements that reduce the cost of renewables can address these rising marginal costs, but the penalty should eliminate consideration of any new technology that will cost more than 5 cents over non-renewable sources. Moreover, $25 million per year is a small price to pay relative to the cost of developing, building and operating renewables technologies.

The response to all of this from some environmental groups has been to argue forcefully against cost-containment measures in the Lieberman-Warner Climate Stewardship Act. Allow the price for carbon dioxide to rise higher, they argue, and technologies like solar and the capture and storage of CO2 from coal plants will become cost-competitive.

But environmental groups will never win this battle for the simple reason that the public, and thus their elected policymakers, are far more concerned about rising energy prices than they are about global warming. This, in a nutshell, is the Gordian Knot: increase energy prices too high, and face a political backlash; don't increase them enough, and the regulation is ecologically irrelevant.

Climate legislation will almost certainly pass sometime in 2009 or 2010 under the next president. That legislation will contain cost-containment provisions of one form or another, and these provisions will allow private firms to postpone action, will give politicians bragging rights, and will reassure those concerned about global warming that something is being done.

But the end result would be several more decades of inaction. With the world seeking cheap energy, the most important goal for combating climate change isn't future emissions targets, or concentrations of carbon dioxide, but rather the price of clean energy. As long as clean energy remains far more expensive than fossil fuels, everything else is just noise.