Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The policy that won't die

Before tackling some of the new developments in climate science and climate policy, we've got to battle an old nemesis.

The concept of “emissions intensity” appears to rearing its mathematically twisted head again in Canada. According to yesterday’s Globe and Mail, a draft of the new federal climate policy includes what everyone is referring to as intensity-based targets. I've harped on this many times before, and with some luck, will do so here for the last time.

Emissions intensity is the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions divided by some measure of economic productivity, like GDP. Say your goal is to keep the emissions intensity constant. If GDP goes up, emissions go up. Since inflation causes GDP to rise every year, an intensity-based emissions plan may very well involved an increase in emissions.

That’s not to say there is no value in using intensity-based measures in an emissions policy. Say the country’s emissions are growing – each year, more is expected to be emitted than the last year – because of economic growth. That means at the beginning of emissions controls, simply slowing the growth may be an accomplishment. The problem is that the climate does not care about GDP. So, at some point, the policy has to involve actual reductions in emissions below current levels. The common beef with recent Canadian policy proposal is that point is being set too far into the future.

What bothers me, the reason I keep writing about this, is that the use of emissions intensity so often smacks of politics and marketing. Reducing emissions intensity sounds nice: We’re become less intense. We’re becoming more efficient.

See, in the policy, the emissions intensity “target” could be converted into an estimated emissions target.. Simple. Take the emissions intensity “target” set for industry for whatever year – say 2020 – and multiply by the projected GDP (which was used to estimate the intensity in the first place). That would give you the actual emission target.

This is never done. Why? Because it would lay bare the fact that actual emissions target in the policy is higher than the current emissions. And, that is a fact that the authors and promoters of the policy, regardless of their political stripes, would prefer to hide from the voters.

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