To tackle climate change, look to the market – not idealism and ideology

The focus at the upcoming climate conference in Madrid must be on finding realistic solutions – beyond carbon taxation and incentivising use of renewables

epa08013495 Smoke rises from chimneys of the gas boiler houses as the temperature dropped to minus 7 degrees Celsius in Moscow, Russia, 21 November 2019. Spanish Madrid will host the COP25 World Climate Change Conference from 02 to 13 December replacing Chile.  EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV
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In his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science, psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduces a popular behavioural theory. According to it, the rider is only more powerful than the elephant while the beast can tolerate its burden. The same analogy could be made to the challenge of climate change. Man is master of the planet and guides its destiny. But if the planet seriously shifted, the population would be easily crushed.

As states gather in Madrid on Monday for the 25th convention of United Nations Climate Change Conference, the threat of that shift in relationship between man and the planet is uppermost for the delegations. Last year, the language around climate debate broadly moved from the level of nagging concern to clear existential threat to our way of life.

The hurdles to tackling climate change need to be seen in a new way and challenges brought to the centre of politics, diplomacy and finance. Drastic measures are needed but these must be built around the fears and interests of the planet’s citizens.

Polls show rocketing concern about the pace of climate change. These are driven not only by worldwide weather patterns but also by hard figures. Just last week, it was announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is growing more rapidly than ever before, rising by 2.3 parts per million (ppm) in 2018 to 407.8 ppm. The average for the previous decade was increases of 2.06 ppm each year.

A Europe-wide survey found that 40 per cent of all respondents cited the environment to be their primary topic of concern. A British survey, carried out by the think tank Onward, revealed that 62 per cent of 18-24-year-olds and 59 per cent of 25-34-year-olds thought that government should prioritise the environment above all. The surveys inevitably ask national audiences if their own governments should take action.

Students and their supporters protest as they demand transformative climate action to counter climate change with a strike against consumerism, during the Black Friday sales in Santa Monica, California on November 29, 2019. The Black Friday Strike takes place just before world leaders gather in Spain for COP25, where countries will discuss how to prevent the catastrophic impacts of climate change.  / AFP / Mark RALSTON
Students demand transformative climate action with a strike against consumerism. A British survey by the think tank Onward found 62 per cent of 18-24 year olds thought their government should prioritise the environment above all. AFP

However, what emission reports and polling do not highlight is that burden-sharing is an important consideration, both globally and locally, and governments cannot work in isolation. Seen in terms of the league table of emitters, it is problematic that China is responsible for 28 per cent of emissions and the US for 15 per cent; they are also the world's two largest economies. There is the fraught question, too, about whether a country should tackle emissions or its entire carbon footprint. For nations of the calibre of China and the US, the latter can be much greater.

Onward, meanwhile, also found that the richest 10 per cent of people in the world consumed four times the amount of carbon-producing energy than was taken up by the lowest 10 per cent. This creates problems for adopting a taxation-based approach to reducing energy consumption. The backlash in France by the so-called gilet jaunes, who protested over tax hikes on fuel, is a cautionary tale that will make many governments loathe to act.

The fairness issue has also dogged incentives for adoption of renewables. The feed-in tariffs paid by the electricity grid to homes with solar panels in Britain created a windfall for middle-class households but little for the poorer homes. Loans and tax breaks for hybrid or electric vehicles also reward the prosperous disproportionately. It seems fantastical to promote an international carbon price that establishes the concept of "polluter pays" to curb and change behaviour.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, which established the goal of the 1.5C limit on rising temperatures, remains the focus of the countries gathered at next week's summit. Madrid has taken on heightened importance because the gathering comes just before the 2020 deadline for countries to set out a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be good to see a whole raft of new climate policies developed over the next two weeks. Idealism and ideology are dangerous impulses. Campaigners such as Extinction Rebellion, which advocates taxes and punitive measures, put pressure on policy makers, which is important, but make unrealistic demands. The Green New Deal, proposed by legislators on the American political left, would, for example, impose costs worth $10 trillion on US consumers. The remedies suggested are neither realistic or acceptable.

Instead, there must be a real focus on market-based solutions. The electric-powered truck unveiled by Elon Musk last week is a milestone of its own. Vehicles carrying heavy goods can account for a fifth of roadside emissions while just undertaking one-twentieth of vehicle miles. The race for electric-powered passenger aircraft is well under way and workable models are within sight.

Market-based solutions must be a pillar of the response. The potential gains from using the oceans and land, through greater canopy cover, as carbon sinks must be another priority.

Research into measures to defray the impact of rising temperatures, erosion, land degradation and weather events should be better funded. The principle of fairness must replace prohibition. Developed countries must support emerging nations in tackling the crisis. Official frameworks must be assessed on efficiency and viability.

The Madrid meeting should essentially reset the climate agenda around delivering change that people can embrace before the planet crushes its inhabitants.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief for The National