Economic and policy implications of the cumulative carbon budget
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 10:32 AM
The importance of cumulative carbon emissions in determining long-term risks of climate change presents considerable challenges to policy makers. The traditional notion of "total CO2-equivalent emissions", which forms the backbone of agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the European Emissions Trading System, is fundamentally flawed. Measures to reduce short-lived climate pollutants benefit the current generation, while measures to reduce long-lived climate pollutants benefit future generations, so there is no sense in which they can ever be considered equivalent. Debates over the correct metric used to compute CO2-equivalence are thus entirely moot: both long-lived and short-lived emissions will need to be addressed if all generations are to be protected from dangerous climate change. As far as long-lived climate pollutants are concerned, the latest IPCC report highlights the overwhelming importance of carbon capture and storage in determining the cost of meeting the goal of limiting anthropogenic warming to two degrees. We will show that this importance arises directly from the cumulative carbon budget and the role of CCS as the technology of last resort before economic activity needs to be restricted to meet ambitious climate targets. It highlights the need to increase the rate of CCS deployment by orders of magnitude if the option of avoiding two degrees is to be retained. The difficulty of achieving this speed of deployment through conventional incentives and carbon-pricing mechanisms suggests a need for a much more direct mandatory approach. Despite their theoretical economic inefficiency, the success of recent regulatory measures in achieving greenhouse gas emissions reductions in jurisdictions such as the United States suggests an extension of the regulatory approach could be a more effective and politically acceptable means of achieving adequately rapid CCS deployment than conventional carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems.