Rhein on Energy and Climate

Climate change and lung cancer have one thing in common: Both are due to addiction. The climate changes because humanity has got addicted to burning coal, oil and gas, using cars, electricity, aircraft etc. Similarly dung cancer is mostly the consequence of individuals being addict to smoking.

Both processes are slow-moving and not externally visible for decades.
It has taken humanity more than 100 years of industrialisation before discovering its direct link with climate change. Similarly, an individual can keep smoking for several years before detecting any health abnormalities.

Both processes lead to points of no return, from when on action becomes pointless and human beings and the earth will take irreparable damage.

Humanity has started attacking lung cancer in the 1960-70, after US medical established convincing evidence about the causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. During many years the tobacco industry has desperately tried to refute such evidence; it has taken insurance companies, governments and complex law suits to prevail in what became a long-drawn dispute.

During the last 30 years many governments throughout the world have led successful policies against smoking. The USA and the EU have been leading the battle, while developing countries have hardly awoken to the challenge. As a consequence, diseases related to smoking are more common there than in the developed world today.

The success of anti-tobacco policies stems from a combination of three types of measures: very high taxation, progressive prohibition of smoking in public places and awareness campaigns.

Cigarettes are the most highly taxed products. In developed countries, governments raise excise taxes reaching 80 percent and more of their retail value. That is substantially more than on heating oil or gas, let along on gasoline and diesel.

High prices are not a sufficient disincentive in case of severe cases of addiction. Governments therefore had to go beyond fiscal measures. They first decided to limit and even prohibit advertising for tobacco in the media, from newspapers to TV, also against strong resistance from the industries concerned.
Most governments did not stop there. They went on prohibiting smoking first in all public places, then in restaurants and bars. An incredible limitation of individual rights! But governments put the health concerns of passive smokers beyond those of smokers.

The results of these policies have been impressive. In France, which should be representative for most developed countries, the number of smokers declined by one third within the last 10 years!

Today, it has become chic not to smoke! The elites of Western societies have led the way! They have been the first to stop. The poorer and less educated layers of society still have a long way to go towards non-smoking. But the results seem irreversible. Europe and the USA are heading towards low-smoking societies.

Climate policy aims at freeing humanity from its century-old addition to fossil and achieving a low-carbon society by 2050.

Climate policy makers may learn some lessons from the success story of their health colleagues. But unfortunately it is infinitely more difficult to wane 2-3 billion human beings – mostly in the richer countries – from their addiction to fossil energy than the about the same number of smokers.

First, stopping addiction is doable, provided societies invest lots of time and effort.

Second, it requires a strong commitment from society’s elites. They have to lead and drive the message home, against very powerful economic interest groups.

Third, making addiction expensive, e.g. by high excise duties, helps, provided the price difference is substantial. Increasing fossil energy prices by 10 or even 20 percent will not do. But a doubling of oil and gas prices will affect human behaviour, as we have seen in early 2008 with an oil price jumping to $ 150/barril. Excise taxes should therefore amount to 200 percent or more of retail prices to massively reduce consumption. That seems politically unfeasible in most democratic counties.

Fourth, governments therefore need to restrict personal freedoms by imposing fuel strict efficiency standards on new cars or houses, ban the use of traditional light bulbs, impose the use of biofuels for aircraft kerosene etc.

Fifth, most important of all, an effective climate policy implies all major emitters of C02 to be fully involved. At national level, nothing can be achieved, as we have seen unfortunately when the USA backed out of the Kyoto process and deprived it of its effectiveness.

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