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Mike Hulme: After The Crash – A New Direction For Climate Policy

Does the failure of December’s UN climate conference mean the world needs a completely new approach to tackling climate change? It does, a group of academics is arguing this week – and one of them, Mike Hulme, explains why, and what it is that they are recommending.

The gap between the pre-Copenhagen rhetoric of “what must be done to stop climate change” and the reality of the Copenhagen Accord outcome was spectacular.

No agreement of much consequence was reached, and the very efficacy of multilateral climate diplomacy through large set-piece conferences was called into question.

During these same months that the multilateral policy orthodoxy unravelled, the limits were revealed of trying to use science to tame the acrimonious politics of climate change.

Climate change has been represented as a conventional environmental “problem” that is capable of being “solved.”

It is neither of these. Yet this framing has locked the world into the rigid agenda that brought us to the dead end of Kyoto, with no evidence of any discernable acceleration of decarbonisation whatsoever.

So how do we extricate ourselves?

A small group of independent scholars and analysts, including myself, has published The Hartwell Paper, an attempt to offer a radically different way of framing the issues raised by climate change, and hence a different set of approaches for tackling them.

Emissions cut

To move forward, we believe a startling proposition must be understood and accepted.

It is not possible to have a “climate policy” that has emissions reduction as the all-encompassing and driving goal.

We advocate inverting and fragmenting the conventional approach: accepting that taming climate change will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals that are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

Without a fundamental re-framing of the issue, new mandates will not be granted for any fresh courses of action, even good ones.

The paper’s first primary goal focuses on access; to ensure that the basic needs, especially the energy demands, of the world’s growing population are adequately met.

The second is a sustainability goal; to ensure that we develop in a manner that balances social, economic and ecological goals.

Third is a resilience goal; to ensure that our societies are adequately equipped to withstand the risks and dangers that come from all the vagaries of climate, whatever their cause.

Access

Energy policy should focus on securing reliable and sustainable low-cost supply, and, as a matter of human dignity, attend directly to the development demands from the world’s poorest people, especially their present lack of clean, reliable and affordable energy.

Present estimates suggest that about 1.5 billion people lack access to electricity worldwide.

Many scenarios for the “successful” implementation of mitigation policies leave what we believe to be an unacceptable number of people literally in the dark.

If energy access is to be expanded to include those without access today while meeting expected growth in global energy demand in the rest of the world, the unit costs of energy will necessarily have to come down.

But the higher quality fossil fuels are in already tight markets. If the attempt is made to satisfy new demand using these fuels, then costs will rise.

Alternatives to fossil fuels must be made cheaper. In short, we need to ignite efforts to achieve an energy technology revolution in all the currently active areas: for example, solar panels, biofuels, batteries, and nuclear plants.

Very large investments in energy technology innovation will be necessary.

Such investments can lead to benefits coincident with the primary goal of decarbonisation – most importantly, economic growth from the creation of new, highly innovative industries.

We propose that nations fund innovation aimed at direct decarbonisation through a very modest (initially) hypothecated carbon tax.

The proposed tax would not be designed to change consumer behaviour; it would be used to conceive, develop and demonstrate, and even purchase, low-carbon or carbon-free technologies.

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