Bjørn Lomborg on the Give and Take in Greenhouse Gas Reduction

13.12.2013 -

Bjørn Lomborg might not be a household name in the chemical industry, but the mention of his name in environmental activist circles seems to provoke one of two reactions: adoration or distain. Lomborg, a Danish academic who rose to notoriety in 2001 with his controversial book "The Skeptical Environmentalist," can be found on a handful of top 50 or top 100 lists for the world's top intellectuals and leaders; however, he also once found himself on the receiving end of a real-life Three Stooges scene when a critic of his theories smashed a pie in his face at a book signing.

Lomborg argues that current measures to halt global warming - specifically the Kyoto Protocol - are too expensive and non-effective, but he generates most of the ire against him with his standing that the climate changes that are underway are not as grave as many claim. His mantra is, "panic is rarely a good basis for smart policy." Lomborg often takes the media and environmental activists to task for what he describes as exaggerating the numbers on climate change in order to scare the general population into action.

"There is a tendency in the activist camp to sort of keep pushing that and keep only talking about the upper limit," he says in an interview with CHEManager Europe. While Lomborg doesn't deny that there are scientists who have projected, for example, a drastic rise in sea levels, he says there are also scientists who claim won't be any rise. This is why he says he prefers to defer to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as being the most reliable source for such prognoses. However, the IPCC has come under fire recently after publishing its Fifth Assessment on Climate Change in September. According to Spiegel Online, several renowned scientists say the report is riddled with inconsistencies. Some have called the report too optimistic, while others have said the report includes imprecise calculation on the role humans play in global warming.

Regardless, Lomborg says, "There is a good argument to be made that panic actually makes for really bad policy outcomes which, of course, is what we have been seeing over the last 20 years."

Lomborg, Al Gore and the Kyoto Protocol

By bad policy, Lomborg is referring to the Kyoto Protocol. In a recent article for the Telegraph entitled "Keep Calm and Save the Earth," he starts off with "Bad news sells - that's why we hear so much of it. But it can leave us with a panicked sense that the world is full of problems that urgently need to be fixed." In essence, Lomborg isn't the climate-change denier that many claim he is; perhaps a critic of current environmental policy would be a better description.

"The only place where I've changed my pitch since 2001 was my take on the Kyoto Protocol," Lomborg says. "Twelve years ago, I pointed out that for every dollar spent, probably 25 cents worth of good was being done for the environment. Not a great investment ... and in reality, it ended up being much, much worse than that."

Criticism of the Kyoto Protocol, which was created in 1997 in an effort to throttle human-made greenhouse gas emissions, is nothing new in both environmental and economic circles. Many say the protocol doesn't go far enough in limiting emissions while others, such as Lomborg, argue that the costs by far outweigh the benefits. Rather than spending money on frameworks for greenhouse gas reduction, Lomborg says money spent on R&D of green energy sources is a more effective method of halting climate change.

"For every dollar spent on this kind of R&D, we can probably avoid about $11 of climate damage, "he says. "This is much more than can be done with climate policies."

However, the protocol also has its popular proponents, such as Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who personally negotiated for it in the U.S. in 1997. It was signed by President Clinton that year, but was never ratified by the Senate, and the U.S. was never a participant in the protocol.
"When I debate with Al Gore or any other of my opponents, I do believe that they are motivated by goodwill," Lomborg says. "I'm not questioning their morals or intentions, rather whether their policies are the right ones to move ahead."

Since his time as U.S. vice president, Gore has become a symbolic figure in the fight against climate change, culminating in his 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," which sought to expose the myths and misconceptions about "global warming's deadly progress." So does Lomborg really consider Gore to be an opponent?

"I think he is arguing for a very different set of solutions," Lomborg says. "His proposals, such as stopping the use of coal-fired power plants over a 10-year period, betray the fact that there is no sense of economic reality. We are not going to cut carbon emissions significantly, as long as it is very, very costly."

Lomborg On The Energy Transition

The 2011 Fukushima disaster rocked many countries using nuclear power to the core; it seemed that no one was more chilled than German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her reigning party of Christian Democrats. The German government ultimately decided to successively take all of its nine active nuclear power plants off the grid by 2022. Germany, like many other Western countries, is working toward a transition to a sustainable economy through renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable development. However, the country's abrupt departure from nuclear power has proven costly for consumers; according to a recent article in the Financial Times, the cost subsidizing green energy is expected to pass $100 billion next year.

Lomborg says, "Germany is one of few countries in the world that has significantly reduced its carbon emissions, but it has also been done at very, very great cost." And he says what works for Germany cannot work for its less-affluent European neighbors. Spain, for example, has seen its subsidies for renewables go up to €8.1 billion, almost 1% of the country's GDP.

"Spain obviously is not in a good place economically to be spending more on green subsidies than they are for higher education," Lomborg argues. He then makes the kind of calculation he is famous for: "The net effect of all that spending over the next 20 years will postpone global warming by the end of the century by 62 hours."

This argument goes hand in hand with Lomborg's main thesis.

"We need to focus spending on R&D; the only way you are going to get people to switch to green energy in the long run is by making sure that the technology becomes so cheap that everyone wants to buy it. If we could make solar cells and wind turbines and all the other green energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels, everyone would switch, also the Chinese and the Indians. And as long as they are much more expensive, no one will switch in any significant way."

‘No Free Lunch'

Lomborg has often praised fracking - a controversial method of unlocking underground gas deposits - as "this decade's green solution." Fracking has been an absolute boon for the U.S., freeing enormous amounts of feedstock and making production there viable for chemical companies once again. Dow, for example, will be building two shale gas-fed plants on the U.S. gulf coast. However, communities located near fracking sites have reported problems such as water contamination earthquakes and damage to water tables. At what point do the environmental benefits on one side outweigh the detriments on the other side?

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," he says. "With fracking, as well as with anything else we do, there is always going to be a tradeoff. There is no such thing as risk-free energy. Good regulation here is key to minimizing the risks."

Lomborg argues that fracking has the potential to cut carbon emission dramatically; it has probably cut U.S. carbon emissions about 400 to 500 megatons per year over the last three or four years, he says. He compares that to the entire impact of the Kyoto Protocol, which he says has cut emissions by 250 megatons per year.

"So, the U.S. has done twice as much as what the rest of the world has done over 20 years, and they have not done it by giving up money," he says. "In fact, the U.S. has made $125 billion a year through fracking. Compare that with the $280 billion dollars the EU spends each year to cut carbon emissions."

But Lomborg stresses that he doesn't think fracking is the long-term solution to CO2 reduction. Rather, he says it's a bridge to "getting to a world where we don't emit CO2 at all."

"Fracking is not the solution," he says. "But in the environmental conversation, there seems to be a sense that if it's not perfect, it's not worth doing. But, in reality, we've been trying for the perfect solution to carbon emissions for 20 years and have gotten almost nowhere."

Lomborg's road to cutting carbon emissions is paved with compromises, and his argument always circles back to cost.

"The simple point is, as long as green energy is so much more expensive than fossil fuels, we are not going to get most of the world to switch," he says.

Paris 2015 And Beyond

Governments of the world will try once again to cobble together a successful global warming pact in Paris in 2015, where the next UN Conference on Climate Change will take place. It is widely agreed that the 2009 Copenhagen conference was a complete flop, setting back the world's movement to get a handle on global warming. While many UN officials have presented themselves as optimistic, Lomborg has his doubts.

"They are setting it up a little bit like Copenhagen in 2009, where we are going to solve the climate change and again have this grand treaty," he said. "We need to get beyond that and look for another solution."

However, Japan's recent acknowledgement that its greenhouse-gas reduction target of 25% below 1990 levels is impossible to attain has buoyed Lomborg's hope that the world will come around to the idea of an R&D-based approach to global warming.

"Japan has simply given up on the approach to climate policy that has failed for the past twenty years. Instead it has promised to spend $110 billion over five years for innovation in environmental and energy technologies," he said. "The economics show that the smartest long-term solution would be to focus on innovating green energy. This would push down the costs of future generations of wind, solar and many other amazing possibilities. Everyone would switch to green energy, not just a token number of well-meaning rich Westerners."

Brandi Schuster