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?