Limiting emissions by sector is the wrong thing to be doing

One of the great sadnesses of the climate change debate is that everyone, just everyone making policy that is, ignores all of the things we know about how to avert climate change. Yes, obviously, if you don’t think climate change is happening, or that we’re not causing it, even if you think nothing should be done about it, this isn’t going to interest all that much. But for the rest of us this is an important issue. Sure, we want to make sure we don’t end up boiling Flipper in the remains of the last ice floe. So, what should we be doing about it?

What we shouldn’t be doing is idiocy like this:

The global shipping industry has for the first time agreed to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases.

The move comes after talks all week at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London.

Shippings has previously been excluded from climate agreements, but under the deal, emissions will be reduced by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels.

This is not just nonsense, this is counter productive:

Despite opposition from nations including Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the US, the states came to a final agreement on Friday, signalling to industry that a switch away from fossil fuels is fast approaching.

Ultimately the goal is for shipping’s greenhouse gas emission to be reduced to zero by the middle of the century, with most newly built ships running without fossil fuels by the 2030s.

It’s a very stupid thing to be doing indeed:

More than 2 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide come from the shipping industry, which is roughly equivalent to Germany’s emissions. But shipping, like aviation, has been excluded from previous environmental accords, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, because its focus was based on a system of state-level targets.

This is not to say that 2% of total emissions might not be of import. Its also not to say that shipping should get some form of free pass. It is though to insist that it’s stupid – counter productive as above – to be trying to cut emissions by sector or activity. That’s not what we want to be doing at all. We do, again assuming we’re signed on to the idea of climate change at all, want to cut overall emissions but to insist that each sector do so is insane.

For economists will just insist upon substitution. Everything is substituitable. For example, let us think of the supply of wine in Scotland. Some number of Scots would rather like this to continue. So, we’d like there to be wine in Scotland at the lowest emissions level.

Should we do this by glasses in Scotland, grapes can be grown, wine made? Or do it in France and ship it?

Which method produces the lowest total use of resources? We’ve it on good authority that the first would be some 30 times the expense. Which would produce the greater shipping emissions? The second – but we’d also rather assume that the second would produce lower overall emissions.

Thus, to reduce total emissions by placing specific emissions targets upon shipping is the wrong thing to be doing, isn’t it? And what is it that current policy in general does? Places emissions limitations on a sector by sector basis. Exactly and precisely the wrong thing to be doing.

How well we are governed, eh?

Support Continental Telegraph Donate


  1. If using more fuel efficient shipping fuel technology is cheaper than shipping will automatically move to more fuel efficient shipping fuel technology. There’s no need to force them, filthy greed will do it for us.

  2. “Despite opposition from nations including Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the US,”
    So who were the other opposing nations? And who the consenting? Is this an initiative by the great shipping importing & exporting nations like Switzerland, Paraguay, Kazakhstan & Zimbabwe?

  3. Wow, this was not even done by the UN or instigated by John Kerry, but was the work of a trade council, which ought to know something about shipping, for example that fossil fuels beat “sustainable” energy at least in ease of carrying on board. It seems that wherever you get a political body together, virtue-signalling becomes dominant and measurement is secondary. This is like the NCAA crusading against Native American nicknames of university sports teams.

    Does “shipping” mean maritime shipping, or does it include trucks (which also benefit from the portability of fossil fuels)? Ocean vessels are tiny specks on the globe, and I find the 2% figure suspect.

  4. We see the weather, which is pretty much the same as always. We see claims made with dodgy evidence that some things we are doing might make the world a little warmer, which may be correct or not. The problem is that that proposition in the hands of agenda-motivated activists somehow REQUIRES an extension of power and control to be put in the hands of politicians, conmen, rent-seekers and worst of all earnest do-gooders.

    To me the null hypothesis of global warming holds: Nothing much is happening and if it does we can adapt.

  5. They seem to be ignoring the fact that ship owners have been trying (and succeeding) to constantly increase the fuel efficiency of large marine diesel engines. The best are now around the 55% fuel efficient mark, the theoretical maximum of a practical (read limited by temperature) engine is about 65%; if I can remember my college days from 40 odd years ago. So the engine manufacturers are at the practical limits now of what is possible.
    Hitachi played around with a co-generation type system years ago where waste heat from the engine cooling water and exhaust gas was used to provide heat to a refrigerant gas, that was then expanded through a turbine coupled to the main drive shaft. I really don’t know where that got to though. I seem to recall it was too complicated and expensive to put into production.
    How they expect them to come up with practical reductions without substantially increasing the costs of world trade I have no idea.
    Total numpties, in two words.

    • They aren’t ignoring those costs. They are confident that someone else will be paying them and that they will continue to be jetted abroad to conferences and negotiations regardless of the quality of their work.

  6. At first this will be a voluntary agreement. Free market forces will soon force the parties to the agreement out of business, as they will have imposed upon themselves extra costs not borne by non-compliers. Force will then have to be applied in the way of fines, taxes and exclusionary regulations in order to “level the playing field” [extended pause for coughing fit]. Or what Tim is so fond of calling a Pigouvian Tax.

    Is it not amusing how the fiercest defender of free markets can be persuaded to abandon his beliefs in order to pursue an ideology.

    • In fact, coercion will arrive before the first bankruptcy. The voluntary agreement creates an instant market in low-cost shipping by firms that do not volunteer to cripple themselves. Walmart and GM will buy freighters if no one else fills this niche. As this competition saps businesses from Environmentally Correct shippers, most will find ways around their agreement. The less nimble will go to government for comprehensive regulation, backed by implied armed force — mind you, only to insist on high standards, such as making all parties obey an agreement that none of them really wants, and no one asked their customers for an obvious reason.

      “The fiercest [corporate] defender[s] of free markets” usually defend free markets for themselves and maybe for their current competitors. Even Zuckerberg told Congress he was open to sensible regulation of individual opinion in social media — and the press has begun to report on how Facebook would profit financially from this. It avoids the past (AOL/CompuServe/Myspace) and makes the future illegal.