How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course

The lesson of the recent past is clear to us. In the first instance, policy should focus directly on decarbonization rather than on emissions; on causes instead of consequences. (…) The Japanese target does not depend on the froth of purchased offsets.

Another blockbuster joint paper was released 6 July 2009 by the London School of Economics / University of Oxford. This report builds on the ongoing analysis of Kyoto by a distinguished group of researchers: why Kyoto went wrong, after Kyoto, what policies are likely to really work.

My own introduction to this program was the 2007 paper The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy by authors Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner. At the time I felt like I had been working in a dark room when Prins/Rayner stepped in to turn the lights on. They were willing to “speak truth to power” in the hope of changing the whole direction of climate policy onto a track that could be incrementally managed to achieve good outcomes: a policy covering the full range of options, from mitigation, to adaptation, to geoengineering.

The captioned new report, How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course , is authored by a formidable dream team. Inverting “ad hominem attack”, my defense would highlight the additional expert coauthors. Here by example are just a few names familiar to those of who have been seeking a practical policy framework: Christopher Green, Roger Pielke, Jr, Dan Sarewitz and Hans van Storch. The report exhorts policy leaders to drop the failed Kyoto-style framework and instead focus directly on decarbonizing global energy systems by applying the Kaya Direct Approach

The Kaya Identity shows that there are four – and four only – macro-scale policy levers in pursuit of emissions reductions. These are, respectively, population, wealth, energy intensity (meaning units of energy per unit of GDP) and carbon intensity (meaning the amount of carbon produced per unit of energy). Each of these factors is amenable to the action of a particular lever and each lever prescribes a particular approach to policy.

See discussion in R.A. Pielke Jr, ‘The British Climate Change Act: A Critical Evaluation and Proposed Alternative Approach’, Environmental Research Letters, 18 June 2009, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/2/024010. 6 July 2009 In the case of population, the lever is population management. In the case of wealth, the lever is to reduce the size of the economy. In the case of energy intensity, the lever is to increase energy efficiency. And for carbon intensity, a switch to energy sources that generate fewer emissions is the primary lever.

The relationship between the four factors in the Kaya Identity can be expressed mathematically as follows:

carbon emissions = C = P x (GDP / P) x (TE / GDP) x (C / TE)   [where TE is total energy]

This paper is about the record of, the prospects for and the implications of decarbonisation as a focus of climate policy. In deference to Professor Kaya’s insight, we call it the Kaya Direct Approach. The Kaya Direct Approach means focussing on those factors that articulate with emissions and economic growth explicitly, rather than through an indirect and perhaps non-existent chain of causation. We do know something about how to improve efficiency: we’ve learned that from Japan. We do know something about decarbonising energy supply: we’ve been doing so for 200 years. So focusing upon incremental progress based on what we know, will begin to move us in the right direction.

Part I leads off with an clear statement of the challenge:

The abject failure of existing policy

The rate of global decarbonization can be broken down by region (see figure):

The historical record shows quite clearly that global and regional rates of decarbonization have seen no acceleration during the recent decade, and in some cases, show evidence of re-carbonization. Why is this so?

The axiomatic reason is to do with the nature of knowledge. It is a characteristic of open systems of high complexity and with many ill-understood feed-back effects, such as the global climate classically is, that there are no self-declaring indicators which tell the policy maker when enough knowledge has been accumulated to make it sensible to move into prescriptive action. Nor, it might be argued, can a policy-maker ever possess the type of knowledge – distributed, fragmented, private; and certainly not in sufficient coherence or quantity – to make accurate ‘top down’ directives. Hence, the frequency of failure and of unintended consequences.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, policy makers have been presented with frequent lessons about the unintended consequences of policy action. For instance, setting huge targets for renewable energy in a short time frame (from 8.5% to 20% by 2020) may unintentionally drive the whole of Europe into large-scale wood burning. This decision will almost double the wood demand for biomass energy in the EU-15 from 55% of harvested wood in 2001 to 100% in 2020 at current harvest levels, or it may increase harvest above 1950 levels – the peak moment when the harvested proportion of net primary production was 1.5 times today’s levels – and shorten forest rotation lengths. It has been calculated that wood consumption will be 453 million cubic metres in 2020 due to bio energy targets. There will be a huge demand-supply gap.4 There will be different sorts of hazard also. Decentralized wood burning may increase the already considerable number of deaths caused by fine-particle emissions in Europe. Furthermore, it will increase the atmospheric black carbon load, which is thought to have powerful climate forcing effect: the opposite result of what policy intends.


The fourth problem is that climate policy has come to serve many other political and social functions beyond its declared formal objective. Thus, undeclared political, religious, ethical and wider lifestyle and social purposes are being fulfilled which complicate the design and the application of a formal policy process.

Yes – the media contribute to this hidden agenda, attributable to some of the highest-profile anti-growth activists. Their agenda may be some variant of “back to nature, you can read by a candle” while their advertisements exhort “efficiency is the answer” and “Nuclear isn’t safe”.

The paper is rich in examples of the unintended consequences of the top-down target setting policies. E.g., on biofuel mandates

Recent analysis calculates that it would take 400 years to pay off the global ‘carbon debt’ caused by changes in land use induced by bio-fuel energy production. [Ed – the reference for that is J. Fargione, J. Hill, D. Tilman et al. ’Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt’, Science, Vol. 319, 2008, pp. 1235-1238].

E.g., the anti-nuclear campaign

A final example: EU policies will set clean energy sources in competition against each other, especially nuclear against the available renewable energy sources (bio and wind). As a result of running down nuclear power, the consumption of fossil fuels is growing everywhere.

Part II is captioned “So what should be done instead?

For reasons of political feasibility as well as of efficiency, pointed out in the Kaya Identity, the Kaya Direct Approach focuses on energy intensity and carbon intensity and not on population and wealth. Population control policies are always politically explosive and so too would be attempts to reduce general wealth or to curb wealth creation. In democracies, there are no votes in making people feel poorer, and we suspect that such policies would be unpopular elsewhere as well, for example in China.

In contrast, we think the evidence encouraging if policy focuses directly on efficiency/intensity improvement through technology development and deployment. First, direct efficiency gains do translate into real reductions in emissions. (…) Secondly and related, pursuit of direct efficiency gains prioritises the heavy energy using sectors first and only concerns itself with lower impact sectors much later on. So, on this logic, world-wide there should be a sectoral focus on electricity generation first of all and then on other heavy user industries, such as iron and steel or aluminium production.


The Kaya Direct Approach would focus on expanding the provision of carbon-free energy. To this end, we support a low ring-fenced carbon tax in one form or another to fund innovation policies. The core argument of the Breakthrough Institute is an elementary political truth, namely that clean energy will only advance radically when it is made cheaper than dirty energy at point-of-use by the consumer.

The Kaya Direct Approach has another advantage over current methods – an advantage which is potentially of decisive importance, in our view. It is that it is incremental which means that progress can be continuously assessed. There are no arbitrary deadlines. It is the rate of decarbonization which is the ultimate arbiter of success. This means that we can avoid what we have just experienced, namely the danger of long periods of unobserved failure of policy.

The approach is preferable for other reasons. First of all, it addresses design shortfalls in the conventional approach. That much is already evident from our account above. In particular, it detaches the setting of targets from emissions. (…) The energies and time of the negotiating community currently engaged on the pursuit of a “bigger and better” Kyoto model for the Copenhagen Conference (which has already been shown to be nugatory at the Poznan and Berlin preparatory conferences) can be productively harnessed: for there will be a need for international agreement and review of best practice bench-marks, for example. This would be a much more practical and effective activity than setting aspirational and unachievable emissions reduction targets of which the UK Climate Act is the leading example.

Please read How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course, and The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy, and Roger Pielke, Jr.’s related papers The British Climate Change Act: A Critical Evaluation and Proposed Alternative Approach, and Mamizu Climate Policy: An Evaluation of Japanese Carbon Emissions Reduction Targets.