The only sensible measure against global warming

Introduction and claims
For the past ten years or so, an enormous amount of resources have been spent in the name of combating global warming. In the following text, I am first going to make two simple claims concerning the way these resources have been used, and then explain my reasoning. I am going to apply my claims specifically to the measures the North-European kingdom of Norway has taken and should be taking (among other reasons that will become clear later, because I am a Norwegian), but they can be applied to many other countries as well.

My first claim is this: There are basically only two measures that makes any sense for Norway to take when it comes to global warming.
1) Either Norway sets a specific goal as to how much oil (and natural gas) she is going to produce in the long run (and enforces it with restrictions or taxes directly on the oil), or
2) she does nothing.
All other alternatives, and this sadly includes basically every measure that has ever been taken to reduce CO2 emissions, have a large chance of being completely without any effect whatsoever on the climate, and a waste of resources in that respect. These are also the only two alternatives that would make Norway’s environmental policy and natural resources policy consistent.

However, no Norwegian mainstream politician has ever taken the idea of reducing oil production directly seriously, and there is no serious debate about whether or not to do this in the media. My second claim is that this is completely mind-blowing, because it is obvious that my first claim is true, and politicians (and others) should therefore have realized that this is the only feasible solution a long time ago. The rest of this text will attempt to show that it is obvious that my first claim is correct.

 

Reasoning
Measures taken to limit CO2 emissions in Western countries the last years have been extremely varied. We have put taxes on gasoline and gasoline driven cars (both are extremely expensive in Norway), production of and research in electrical or hydrogen driven cars has been subsidized, efforts to minimize electrical consumption have been made, research into alternative fuels (such as bio fuel) and energy production has been subsidized, rainforests have been replanted (while natural regrowth of old farmland in Norway has been stopped for different reasons), and so on. While these measures may have had many different beneficial effects, they were all made specifically to reduce the effects of global warming on our planet, and so their success-rate should be estimated based on only how well they achieved in this area.

Norwegian gasoline is very expensive because of high targeted taxes, leading many people to consider alternative fuels

Let us imagine that Norway increases her taxes on car gasoline. This will lead to Norwegians tending to choose other fuels or different means of transportation, which will lead to less gasoline consumption, which will lead to less greenhouse gas emissions, which will lead to less global warming on earth. Right? Wrong. Only if we are really lucky, this will lead to less immediate gasoline consumption, but it seems just as likely that it will not. The infrastructure to produce the amounts of gasoline that we are consuming today are already in place, and the reduction of demand in one place will only reduce the price of gasoline, which will make it a more viable alternative in other industries or in other parts of the world. Perhaps jet fuel in Asia will become cheaper as a result, and more tourists will travel by plane from China to India. Thus, the gasoline consumption in general is not even likely to be reduced in the short run. I will come to what happens in the long run in a bit.

One measure that has been implemented to some extent might reduce CO2 emissions in the short run, and that is direct taxation on the CO2 emissions themselves. The European Union has implemented this strategy in the form of CO2 quotas for some years, with varying results. It is a much better solution than the measures listed in the first paragraph, because it goes directly to the source of the problem. A tax on gasoline would lead to oil being used for different purposes with the same result with regards to CO2 emissions, but when you tax the CO2 directly, either usage becomes less profitable, and consumption of oil (and other CO2 emitting fuels) goes down. When CO2 emitting energy sources become less profitable, research into alternative sources will seem more attractive to investors, who will spend more money on it, and the result will be new, CO2-clean energy sources, which will lead to even more people switching from reliance on oil. If implemented correctly, a tax (or quotas) directly on CO2 would be the ideal solution to the global warming problem.

However, there are at least three practical problems with this scheme. First, countries don’t follow these international agreements. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, bound countries to keep their greenhouse gas emissions to some percentage of their 1990 emission levels. The percentage is different from country to country, but it averages at a reduction of about 5%, which does not seem like an impossible goal. The chart below shows that about a third of the countries increased their emissions significantly. A fair share reduced theirs by a lot, but closer inspection will reveal that these are former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, and their reductions likely have much more to do with the transition from a communist to a capitalist economy, rather than the protocol signed seven years later. The countries that have increased their emissions are overwhelmingly rich, developed countries, in other words the only countries that would have the surplus resources to make real changes with the protocol in mind. Norway in particular has a goal not to increase her emissions by more than one percent as compared with 1990 – and she has instead increased them by about 30 percent so far. So, if a direct tax on CO2 emissions was implemented, and the taxes were set high enough to actually make a difference (again in the short run; we will come to the long run problem soon), it is almost certain that some countries would not follow these rules.

List of nations that signed the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas mitigation treaty. The white bars show their reduction target compared to 1990 levels, while the black bars show how much they had actually reduced their emissions by 2009

This leads us to the second problem: Many countries would not be participating in the scheme in the first place. As noble as the EU initiative may be, its effectiveness is extremely curbed as long as it is designed to only apply to a fraction of the world’s countries. It is the same problem as with the car gasoline and the jet fuel outlined earlier in this text; even if EU somehow reduced its oil consumption by a huge amount, this would only lead to cheaper oil on the world market, and the US, China and India would consume even more, largely balancing the reduction away.

All we have talked about until now, are the problems with reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the short run, and it has become clear that this is not a simple problem to solve with the kind of measures that are used today. However, I will admit that some carefully thought-out strategies and intelligent international treaties might possibly solve the first two problems to a certain extent, and reduce the emissions in the short run, perhaps even significantly. But the third problem is that, unless the first two problems are solved almost entirely (which no one is even imagining to enterprise at the moment), there is a significant chance that these treaties, and all the resources spent to set them into effect, will have no impact on the amount of CO2 released in the long run, whatsoever. This is the central point of this text, and the point that has eluded almost all commentators and those in power, even though it means that almost all measures taken until today to reduce global warming quite possibly will have virtually no positive effect on global warming itself.

German coal plant. Coal is still a very popular source of electric energy

Let us return to Norway, and its policy of high gasoline taxes. Let us say that they with this measure somehow manage to reduce oil consumption in general in the short term; in other words, the number of barrels of oil consumed, and thereby produced, per year goes down. So far, so good. In ten years, the number of barrels produced will be lower than the number of barrels that would have been produced had the policy never been implemented. The same in fifty years. By now, many applications that currently use oil will have switched to different energy sources. But other industries will continue to be using oil; barring a world-changing revolution in energy production technology, oil is going to be used in significant amounts for the foreseeable future. And in a hundred years or so, there is a significant chance that we will have pumped up and burned all the oil that can be practically extracted. It is possible that alternative fuels will become so popular before then that it will not be profitable to extract all the oil, but at this rate it does not seem likely. The result? We will have used the same amount of oil, and emitted the same amount of greenhouse gases, only over a longer period of time. Granted, we may by this avoid a high amount of warming over a short amount of time – but we will simply substitute it by a moderate amount of warming over a long period of time. There is no reason to believe one is better than the other, and it has certainly not been the goal of the anti-global warming campaigns to choose one over the other.

The Laffer curve. The high point in the middle is the point where more taxes would lead to so much less production of wealth that tax revenues would go down

So, as long as there are consumers somewhere that want to use oil for something, oil companies are going to continue to extract oil until there is nothing left. That is, unless there are restrictions on how much they can extract. Actually, Norway has very high taxes on oil extraction. And that is exactly what I recommended as a solution earlier, right? Wrong. For these taxes to have any effect on how much oil is extracted in the long run, they would have had to be adjusted as it became apparent how much oil is actually extracted under a certain tax-level. The taxes on oil-extraction in Norway seem rather to be based on something akin to the Laffer curve: they are aiming at the point were actual tax revenues are the highest, since taxes higher than this point would curb oil production too much, and reduce the final revenues. In other words, Norway’s strategy concerning oil production is, for all intents and purposes, to produce as much as possible, as fast as possible, as long as possible. Considering that extracting all oil would mean that all global warming measures would have been for nothing, it is obvious that this goal is completely incompatible with Norway’s environmental policy. All of Norway’s oil may have been extracted in 50 or 100 years, and by then all global warming measures will have been for nothing.

What Norway needs to do if she wants to combat global warming is to set a goal of some sorts regarding oil production, and enforce it, and then do nothing else to combat global warming. I do not care about the details about this goal. I do not care about exactly how she enforces it (although I think the candidates are quite obvious). She can set a goal to stop production completely by 2030; she can set a goal to reduce production by 50% by 2020; she can decide to extract only 50% of the available oil, or 0%, or 70%. She can enforce this by quotas on exactly how much each company can extract every year, or by taxes that are continually adjusted to meet the goal. I do not have a strong opinion on what this goal should be, because the question of how much resources we should spend to combat global warming in not trivial. My point is that this is the only measure that is guaranteed to have any effect whatsoever on total greenhouse emissions.

The above implies that only the governments of countries that produce raw fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) can realistically have any real influence on total greenhouse gas emissions (in the case that fossil fuel reserves are eventually exhausted). This is true in general, but I also believe Norway is in a globally unique position to influence the climate. Norway is one of the biggest oil and natural gas producers in the world. It is the third largest oil producer by capita in the world, barely beaten by Kuwait and Qatar, and the second largest natural gas producer by capita. Norwegian oil prices also have a big influence on other countries; Norway is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world in absolute numbers, and the third largest natural gas exporter. A decision by Norway to only extract, say, 50% of her available oil reserves would with 100% certainty have a significant effect on global warming. The measures taken today will with a significant probability have absolutely no effect.

A map of countries that produce oil, and approximately how much they produce

Moreover, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world by capita, only beaten closely by countries such as Luxembourg and Qatar. Of course, the source of Norway’s wealth is largely the very oil in question, and so it is up for debate how high oil extraction reductions Norway should feel compelled to enforce over how long time; to much too quickly could ruin the economy. But my point in this paragraph is not that Norway is the country in the world that has the conditions to have the largest impact on global warming. My point is that Norway is probably the country in the entire world with the best conditions to do something about global warming, or the country in the best position to do her share, if you wish. The rest of the world is currently facing huge economic problems (Europe and the US), or exponentially growing energy demands (India and China). Curbing vital industries at this point could be disastrous for them, even if one could argue that they have a moral duty to do so anyway. Norway, however, could set a reasonable cap on how much oil to extract the next ten years, designed so that it would only have a moderate impact on her economy. And here is an important point worth noting: This negative impact on her economy is inevitable, if we want to do anything at all about global warming. In fact, our cap on oil extraction is likely to have the smallest impact on the economy that is possible to achieve, when comparing lost money units to degrees Celsius that the temperature did not rise as a result of the measures. Economic theory suggests that limiting the source (crude oil) directly will be more efficient than limiting its final products (gasoline, electricity, plane tickets), since the market will take care of the intermediate calculations (this is also the reason why a tax on CO2 directly would be the ideal solution, as mentioned above, if implemented correctly). And this is concerning the possible short-term effects; as shown above, caps on oil extraction is probably the only measure that will actually have any effects at all in the long term.

A white Christmas: one incentive to stop global warming

I have so far not talked about the second alternative I suggested in the introduction: to do nothing. This is also a completely feasible alternative, because the effects global warming will have on our future lives are far from clear. Much of the fear of global warming we see around the world likely comes from a basic fear of change; it snowed in my city on Christmas eve when I was a child, so it should snow there on every Christmas eve in the future as well. Although our children may experience the geographical areas where they live differently than we did, that does not mean they will live worse lives. There is little reason to believe that the world temperature we have right now is the “ideal” temperature for human life. Whether global warming is leading to more extreme weather is pure speculation at the moment (the data is far from consistent), and from a lay person’s perspective it certainly seems no more likely that the weather should become more rather than less extreme after an increase in the arbitrary mean temperature that we have experienced for the last few thousand years (which is wildly variable over the globe and by the season). After a period of adapting, it is quite possible that variables such as total farm-output or tons of caught fish could turn out to be higher at higher temperatures. None of this is clear, the economists are divided, and at any rate people should be entitled to a white Christmas in their home town if they are willing to spend the outrageous amounts of resources necessary to get it. My point is simply that this is also a feasible alternative, far superior to almost all measures implemented at the moment, since it will quite possibly have basically the same effect on the climate, but without spending outrageous sums of money.

 

Conclusion
I do not advocate spending more or less resources to combat global warming; how much to spend is a far from trivial question, and needs to be decided together with experts. Neither do I advocate that we should stop all projects and measures taken to combat global warming; research into different fuels will have to be conducted at some point, and the sooner the better. Similarly, taxes on gasoline will make people think about changing to different fuels now better than later. Such measures might make the inevitable transition from oil to other energy sources smoother. Planting rainforest in the Amazon will help keep some of the biodiversity on our globe. Many of these measures will have hugely beneficial effects, and should not be stopped. But none of these measures should be taken in order to combat global warming, because as I have demonstrated in the above text, there is a large chance that they will have no effect on global warming, while there exist simple alternatives that are guaranteed to have an effect on global warming, and are no less cost-efficient (probably more).

Perhaps the jaguar can be saved by replanting rainforests, but it might not help against global warming

Although this text is about 4.5 A4 pages, my basic argument is very simple, and requires no special knowledge on the subject: There is a large chance that humanity will expend almost all the extractable fossil fuels on the earth, and if we do, all measures against global warming will have been for nothing. The only reasonable way an oil-producing nation like Norway can solve this, is to make an effort not to extract all the extractable fossil fuels. All other suggested measures are inane. I contend that this is quite obvious, and it is beyond me why this is not seriously discussed in Norway. I am certain that good arguments can be posed against even my claims, but similar claims have not even appeared (to my knowledge) in the public debate. Instead, discussions about global warming continue to revolve around what politician vows to spend the most resources on schemes that quite possibly will not help in combating global warming at all.

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2 Comments on “The only sensible measure against global warming”

  1. Kjell Roger Soleim says:

    Hei Aleksander,

    Denne artikkelen leste jeg med en gang jeg pnet den i morges, og finner argumentene usedvanlig klare og velformulerte. Og ikke minst originale: dette er et perskektiv som er fravrende i den offentlige politiske debatten. Den frste tanken som slr meg, er at artikkelen fortjener bli lest av flere enn mamma og meg. Kanskje burde du oversette den til norsk med tanke p f den publisert i en norsk avis (Morgenbladet?) eller tidsskrift (Samtiden?).

    Hilsen pappa

    Den 17. sep. 2012 kl. 07.21 skrev Aleksander:

    > >

    • Hei,

      jeg har egentlig hatt lyst til å skrive noe liknende til norske aviser i lang tid, men jeg har aldri fulgt debatten i avisene over noe tidsrom, og følte meg ikke helt vel til rette med å kaste meg inn i den, så jeg kom aldri i gang. Men etter en kort muntlig debatt her om dagen ble jeg minnet på min sterke mening rundt akkurat dette (jeg har veldig få sterke meninger rundt global oppvarming), og bestemte meg for i hvert fall å få tankene ned på papir. Kanskje jeg kan vurdere å prøve å sende den til noen, spesielt hvis jeg får noen kritiske kommentarer til den her først.

      Tusen takk for ros.

      Aleksander


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