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Q&A: Andrew Gouldson, director of the new Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy

gouldson.jpgThe UK will get an intriguing new climate research centre next week, with the launch of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and the University of Leeds. In a Q&A for Nature Reports Climate Change, I’ve interviewed Andrew Gouldson, who will co-direct the centre with Judith Rees under chairman Lord Nicholas Stern – and who envisions a strong focus on regional impacts of climate change.

CCCEP’s experts will be closely in touch with policymakers and other local stakeholders, Gouldson says, in a way that “builds both their capacity and ours — ours to do good research, and theirs to use that research to take better decisions on climate change.” One of the stakeholders, and a funder of one of the five research streams at the new centre, is the insurance company Munich Re. As I wrote last month, another new project that aims for the cutting edge of policy-relevant research is a hurricane model projection that Greg Holland is now wrapping up at NCAR – also partly insurance industry-funded. Could these academic-public-private three-ways be the way forward? Let us know in the comments.

I thought the most interesting part of the interview was what Gouldson had to say on the new UK Climate Change Act, which imposes a legally binding requirement to cut emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. Here’s an extract:

AG: At the national level, I think Britain’s been very proactive indeed. The government has been quite brave signing up to this medium- to long-term target which is really quite ambitious. But I don’t think there’s a public understanding, or possibly even a public acceptance, of what a low-carbon economy might look like — one which is 60, 70, 80 per cent decarbonized.

AB: Does that make it less likely that the policy will actually come through with results?

AG: In the next 10 to 15 years, not necessarily, because there are lots of mitigation options that are relatively affordable and technologically viable. I think the question is what happens in the phase after that. Is there a political appetite to do some really quite painful things which would involve some powerful people or parties losing out? I think there’s a need now, in the next few years, to build some sort of broad consensus on the need to shift towards a low-carbon economy.

Read the full interview here.

Anna Barnett

Image: Andrew Gouldson, photographed by Stevie Kilgour at the University of Leeds.

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  1. Report this comment

    paul said:

    Climate Change and U.K. Government Policy.

    One need not necessarily accept the call for a reduction in carbon emmissions made by the U.K. government’s advisory committee on climate change. This policy will be extremely expensive to implement and may possibly be based on fallacious science.

    An example of the expense and injustice that it is causing is found in social housing policy. As part of its climate policy, the government(Department of Local Govment and Communities) has already told Local Authority Landlords to replace communal boilers and later to install combined heat and power systems at a cost of £15,000 approx. per dwelling. These bills are sent to leaseholders under the terms of a private leasehold Contract. Nationally the Government plans to spend £1.5 billion aprox. on this programme. Such communal systems do not generally exist in normal bulidings because of their high maintenance and administrative cost. They are simply not cost-effective, but the government prioritises fuel-efficiency at any cost. Unfortunately, for lessees that attempt to challenge these bills at the Leasehold Valuation Tribunal, they find that this tribunal, the LVT, is under the control of the Department of Local Government. and Communities. They cannot get a fair hearing at the LVT and such lessees are now fighting a range of similar bills, relating to government policy, in open court. It is an inconvenient truth for central government that a Landlord, facing a choice between breaking a government policy or breaking a legal contract, should honour the contract and disregard any obligation of obedience to central government that they may bear as Local Authorities. The costs of such government policies have been inflicted on lessees in many areas of housing policy, apart from climate change. This administrative conduct amounts to stealth tax. It is not a reasonable cost under the terms of an ordinary contract with a landlord, who happens incidently to be a Local Authority.

    The effects of climate change are mixed. The Ministry of Agriculture, known as DEFRA, can confirm that locally global warming has been good for English wine-makers and the growers of Kent cherries. Sea level, by contrast, is the most threatening aspect of climate change, if it leads to major flooding of urban areas in the U.K. Mr. Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has recently said that sea level will increase 1 metre in the next 100 years. This is the first time I have heard a government minister make a definite prediction on the subject. What we can now reasonably expect is an honest commitment from Mr. Miliband to change his opinion if sea levels have not risen by a given amount by 2020, 2035 and so on. Although the government has stated that sea levels could rise by 1 metre during the next 100 years as a result of human activity, if no action on climate change is taken, the assumption of a 1 metre increase is highly contentious and the true increase in future years may be far lower. The “consensus” range of scientific prediction varies from 20 cm. to 90 cm. per 100 years; and there are also extreme points of view outside this range.

    Sea levels have been rising at a rate of 20 cm per 100 years since 1600 AD, with no discernable increase in the industrial period 1775-1975 AD. During this time there has been a large amount of coastal land reclamation in countries such as Holland. Data based on the last 30 years, since 1975, suggest that sea level is now rising at 35 cm per 100 years. No one is sure about what the future increase will be. The government’s claim about a greatly increased future rate of increase can be tested and falsified. If the period 1990-2090 is used as a test, we are effectively 19 years into an experiment. It is only necessary to defer the implimentation of the Kyoto agreement by 20 years in order to get a reliable result. On a worst case scenario, the cheapest thing to do would be to invest in a new Thames barrier that would buy us about 90 years of time to carry out further research and get to the bottom of this contraversial subject.

    We have just spent £15 billion attacking Iraq and when we got there we could not find any weapons of mass destruction. What a pity we didn’t carry out further research before spending that money. We have also spend a lot of money on an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Governments make mistakes. It is foolhardy to start spending when the science is still so uncertain.

    It is a fair assumption that the U.K. economy contributes 5% approx. to such increases. Therefore, the maximum overall effect of climate change policy in the UK is limited to restraining sea level increase by 5 cm. per 100 years, assuming the government’s assuptions to be correct. The policy question facing the government is whether it is worth undertaking expensive measures inside the U.K. to prevent an increase of 5 cm in sea levels. The Stern Report looked at this matter and produced a conclusion that supported government policy. The report was purely economic and made no allowance for scientifc uncertainty. The science was merely taken, from the government, as a given. In dealing with questions of social time preference, inter-generational welfare distribution, cost-benefit discounting and so on, the Report used the lowest possible rates. These were dictated at the outset by treasury guidelines and resulted in conclusions that supported government policy. It is therefore highly misleading to represent the Stern Report as an independent report.

    In truth, the U.K. economy has a neglible effect on sea level change and, for this reason, it participates in an E.U. wide-policy. However, the main producers of CO2 emissions are the large countries such as U.S.A., China and India and they will probably decide this matter according to their own interest. There has been wide-spead questioning of E.U. policy from a range of countries including Poland, U.S.A., Australia, China and so on. In reality, there will be winners and losers, if a “worst case senario” occurs. The agricultural areas of South Eastern Australia might turn to desert, whilst areas such as Siberia and North Canada might become important agricultural producers. It is therefore wholly unhelpful to speak of a “worst case” scenario or to assume that weather patterns circa. 1750-1950 A.D. are an economic and human optimum.

    The government’s policy on restraining sea level increase is complex and , perhaps, muddled. For, example, wind power plant is being located in off-shore in order to protect the Scottish landscape. The policy is therefore intended to balance a number of conflicting enviromnental considerations. The decision to locate off-shore adds 20% to the cost of renewables and it is therefore difficult to accept the a government claim that that there is a climate crisis or “20 years to save the planet”, as some commentators have suggested . A second example is nuclear energy. It does not produce CO2 emissions; it should therefore be exempted from the climate change levy, if it is to enjoy a competitive advantage over conventional fossil fuels. It is not exempted. Nevertheless , the government, after much delay, has accepted that its own policy assumptions lead inexorably to a nuclear future. It has reached this conclusion by imposing its own assumptions about discount rates, as the Stern report did, and also, by imposing unquantifiable constraints such as energy security in respect of imported fossil fuel.

    The truth is that climate change, sea level increase and energy policy are subject to a variety of conflicting considerations. These matters are based on political and personal choice in regard to risk. There can be no over-arching economic solutions.

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