Wearing a hair-shirt can make us feel good by making us feel bad. In environmental terms, this can mean going without certain comforts for little or no benefit. Yet if we're going to avoid the greater discomfort of catastrophic climate change, it looks like we're all going to have to suffer – this according to the UK government's scientific and policy advisers.
The UK has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. It's an ambitious target, but an important one if we are to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change. Other governments have signed up to other targets, some more ambitious, some less. Now, however, Britain has revealed its climate policy model – and you can play at making the rules.
The model is a simplification and an estimation of real economic and environmental indicators projected over the next forty years, but it remains pretty sophisticated. It allows policy makers and interested parties to suggest the level of effort put into demand side, supply side and geo-sequestration activities relating to climate change. You may decide, for example, to let the nuclear industry dwindle to nothing while investing heavily in wind turbines. What would this mean? You may push hard for home insulation but put less effort into electrification of household appliances. How would this effect emissions?
For each indicator level one means doing nothing. Level two is a policy that is seen as deliverable by those seeking to implement it. On home heating, level two means reducing average room temperatures from today's 20C (68F) to 18C (64F). Level three is hard but achievable. In our example, home-owners need to turn their thermostats down to 17C (63F) each winter. Level four is heroic but possible. We could turn those thermostats down to 16C (61F), but will we?
Independent environmental journalist Michael McCarthy tested the system. He started out having all the government's energy and environmental policies being delivered at effort level two. The result? A 42% cut in CO2 emissions. Good, but not good enough.
Thus we're going to have to go outside our comfort zones. Will this mean cold houses? Building wind turbines in beauty spots? Enforcing swingeing regulations on industry? Outlawing the internal combustion engine? Building nuclear power stations? You decide! Go to http://2050-calculator-tool.decc.gov.uk/ and have a go. The best outcome I could get without breaking the laws of physics was a 97% cut in CO2 emissions – and this while decommissioning nuclear power stations.
It's an interesting tool. Of course, policies which fit the UK will not necessarily fit other countries. Each country has a different starting point in terms of electricity generation and fuel efficiency. Most countries are less windy but many are sunnier than Britain. Still, the principles of the policy pay-offs make the exercise worth doing. I'd just suggest removing the hair-shirt before you start. The real suffering is about to begin.
Picture by Jeremy Brooks on Flickr