The Folly of ‘Magical Solutions’ for Targeting Carbon Emissions

Setting unattainable emissions targets is not a policy — it’s an act of wishful thinking, argues one political scientist. Instead, governments and society should focus money and attention on workable solutions for improving energy efficiency and de-carbonizing our economies.

Fifty years ago, political scientist Harold Lasswell explained that some policies are all about symbolism, with little or no impact on real-world outcomes. He called such actions “magical solutions,” explaining that “political symbolization has its catharsis functions.” Climate policy is going through exactly such a phase, in which a focus on magical solutions leaves little room for the practical.

Evidence for this claim can be found in the global reaction to the commitment made by the Japanese government last month to reduce emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The announcement was met with derision. For instance, Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, expressed shock at Japan’s lack of ambition, stating, “I think for the first time in two-and-a-half years in this job, I don’t know what to say.” Sir David King, Britain’s former chief scientist and now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University, singled out Japan as a country that was blocking progress toward an international deal on climate change.

Explaining what would constitute an acceptable target, de Boer explained that “the minus 25 to 40 range has become a sort of beacon” — referring to emissions reduction figures presented in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which were highlighted in subsequent international negotiations at Bali. Perhaps this is also the magnitude of target that King had in mind when disparaging the Japanese proposal. After all, the British government has enacted a law consistent with this range, requiring emissions reductions of 34 percent below 1990 levels by 2022, which would be upped to 42 percent if the world reaches a global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

When policy debate detaches from reality, up can become down in a hurry.

What is missing from the debate over targets and timetables is any conception of the realism of such proposals. If a proposal is not realistic, it is not really a policy proposal but an exercise in symbolism, a “magical solution.” Symbolism is of course an essential part of politics, but when it becomes detached from reality — or even worse, used to exclude consideration of realistic proposals — the inevitable outcome is that policies will likely fail to achieve the promised ends. This outcome is highly problematic for those who actually care about the substance of climate policy proposals.

The U.K. targets are a perfect example of what happens when symbols become disconnected from reality. To achieve a 34 percent reduction from 1990 emissions by 2022 while maintaining modest economic growth would require that the U.K. decarbonize its economy to the level of France by about 2016. In more concrete terms, Britain would have to achieve the equivalent of deploying about 30 new nuclear power plants in the next six years, just to get part way to its target. One does not need a degree in nuclear physics to conclude that is just not going to happen. Colin Challen, Member of Parliament (Labour) and chairman of its All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, has concluded that the U.K. targets are “well beyond our current political capacity to deliver.” Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that the U.K. targets are symbolically strong.

The Japanese targets are not that much different from those in the U.K., requiring a rate of decarbonization of the Japanese economy by 2020 that is only one percent per year less than that implied by the U.K. target. To meet its 2020 target, Japan expects to do the following: construct nine new nuclear power plant plants and improve utilized capacity to 80 percent (from 60 percent); build about 34 new wind-power plants producing around 5 million kilowatts; install solar panels on 2.9 million homes (an increase of 2,000 percent over current levels); increase the share of newly built houses satisfying stringent insulation standards from 40 percent today to 80 percent; and increase sales of next-generation vehicles from 4 percent (2005) to 50 percent (2020).

Meeting these goals will be enormously difficult, especially because Japan has for decades been at the forefront of improving energy efficiency and has already plucked much “low hanging fruit.” Consequently, if Japan’s proposals are to be criticized, perhaps it should be because they are too ambitious rather than too weak. But when policy debate detaches from reality, up can become down in a hurry.

Waxman-Markey has symbolic heft but precious little effect on emissions.

Political debate over climate policy is such that the facts on the ground often make little difference. Another good example of this dynamic can be found in New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s views on the cap-and-trade bill now being considered by the U.S. Senate. Friedman recently evaluated the bill as it emerged from the House of Representatives as follows: “There is much in the House cap-and-trade energy bill that just passed that I absolutely hate. It is too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it.”

He then concludes, “Now let’s get it passed in the Senate and make it law.”

How can Friedman come to such a conclusion based on his judgment that the legislation is a “mess”? Symbolism. Friedman explains, “Rejecting this bill would have been read in the world as America voting against the reality and urgency of climate change and would have undermined clean energy initiatives everywhere.” Friedman’s views about how the bill would be “read” help to explain why it is that climate policy has become about demonstrating one’s strong feelings about the reality and urgency of climate change and not so much about implementing policies that can actually work. A few minutes spent exploring the climate corner of the blogosphere is enough to confirm this claim.

The good news, I suppose, is that the policy process provides plenty of good examples of situations where symbolism and reality get out of kilter with one another, only to be reconciled through the messy political process. One example is the congressional response to budget deficits in the 1980s. At the time it was widely recognized that the growing budget deficits were a problem that had to be dealt with. So Congress passed legislation (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) which mandated that projected budgets had to be balanced. And what happened? Projected budgets were balanced using rosy scenarios and accounting tricks, and the actual budget was nowhere close to being in balance. For a while the impression was given that something was being done. But when the numbers came in, this particular “magical solution” was judged a failure.

Despite the Byzantine complexity of the process, the mathematics of budgeting are not difficult. To be in balance the money coming in must equal the money going out, and these are controlled via taxes and spending. Budgets did not reach balance until Congress revisited its balanced budget legislation to focus on reconciling taxes and spending. Aided by favorable economic winds, the federal budget was balanced by the end of the 1990s.

Climate policy is in the midst of a dynamic very similar to that in budget policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol, the U.K. Climate Change Act, and the U.S. cap-and-trade (Waxman-Markey) bill are each “magical solutions” with considerable symbolic heft but precious little effect (actual or potential) on emissions. The poor actual or expected performance of these policies is presently rationalized in terms of the need to take the first tentative steps to put in place institutions that can eventually be focused more directly on the problem.

For climate policy to succeed, it must move beyond magical solutions to those that actually work.

Emissions reduction has its own simple arithmetic. In the context of modest economic growth, emissions are reduced when energy efficiency improves and/or when energy supply is decarbonized. A direct approach to efficiency and expansion of low-carbon energy is much preferable to the indirect approach enshrined in current policies. A low carbon tax (priced as high as politically possible) could be used to raise funds to invest in technological innovation and deployment. While there are lessons to be learned from past policies (in places such as Japan on efficiency, France on nuclear power, the EU on wind and gas, and so on), the reality is that no one knows how to rapidly decarbonize a major economy or how fast decarbonization can actually take place. So there is merit in trying different approaches in different places.

Ultimately, depending on the relative success of mitigation policies, we may decide in a few decades to adopt a more brute-force approach to removing carbon directly from the atmosphere. In the meantime, however, we should take advantage of every opportunity to learn from efforts to decarbonize economic activity, with particular attention to realistic approaches and costs, such as contained in the Japanese proposal.

In contrast, policies focused on targets and timetables for emissions reductions avoid questions about the realism and costs of the steps actually needed to reduce emissions. As Stanford’s David Victor explains, “setting binding emission targets through treaties is wrongheaded because it ‘forces’ governments to do things they don’t know how to do. And that puts them in a box, from which they escape using accounting tricks (e.g., offsets) rather than real effort.” Until policies focus more directly on improving efficiency and decarbonizing supply, accounting tricks will dominate the policy response, just as occurred in budget policy.

Symbolism is of course both necessary and important in politics. But when symbolism becomes a substitute for meaningful actions, as shown by the dismissive responses to Japan’s emissions reductions proposal, then policy making runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an opportunity to bear witness to cherished values. For climate policy to actually succeed in reducing emissions, it must move beyond “magical solutions” to those that actually work. This means closing the large gap between aspirational goals and actual policy implementation. The global reaction to Japan’s climate policy proposals indicates that this implementation gap remains very large and unlikely to close any time soon.