Getting climate policy back on course with the Kaya Identity

Here’s another take on the need for a new approach to combat climate change. It is based on the Kaya Identity – not, as you might think, a novel by Robert Ludlum, but a simple equation that gives some very useful insights into the factors that determine levels of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Basing their alternative ideas on this equation, Gwyn Prins and 12 colleagues explain How to get climate policy back on course (pdf here). It needs to be put back on track because, as Prins and colleagues put it, the existing policy approach (based on carbon markets) is an “abject failure” (p.4).

The Kaya Identity suggests that there are four – and only four – macro-scale policy levers that are available for making emissions reductions and each of the four levers suggests a particular approach to policy:

— for population, the lever is population management.
— for wealth (global per capita GDP), the lever is to reduce the size of the economy.
— for energy intensity, the lever is to increase energy efficiency.
— for carbon intensity, the lever is a switch to energy sources that generate fewer emissions. (p.4)

Prins et al address the technological solutions available under the third and fourth options, such as efficiency gains and intensity reductions via

— worldwide deployment of best available technologies with the focus first being placed on heavy energy using sectors;

— a low ring-fenced carbon tax and state intervention to fund innovation policies to drive down the cost of clean energy, making it cheaper than dirty energy; and

— development aid policy giving greater prominence to the climate hazards which disproportionately affect the poor of the world.

And what is possible in adhering to best practice right now seems significant. They write that

worldwide deployment of best available technologies in the fossil fuel power sector would save 1.8-2.5 Gt-CO2/year, which is equivalent to China’s total CO2 emissions in power generation. (p.11)

This is all good, impressive even … but it isn’t enough. While environmentally friendly technological solutions might get us part of the way towards stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, if that is as far as the efforts go they will ultimately reproduce the failures of the Kyoto market-based approach. They will do so because they are based on the supposition that somehow we can maintain ‘business as usual’.

And, as I mentioned earlier, Prins and his colleagues are only prepared to consider the implications of the Kaya Identity in two of its four potential policy levers, the technocratic levers. Addressing population or wealth is, they feel, simply too “explosive”.

This unwillingness of Prins et al to get to grips such matters is an unwillingness to question fundamental assumptions about economy and society, to think about value judgements and ethical problems. That’s an intellectual cop-out.

So what about the population and wealth factors in the Kaya equation?

The population ‘issue’ isn’t “explosive” at all, in itself. There is, of course, plenty in this world for all, so long as we don’t expect US-style levels of consumption for 7 or 8 or 9 billion people. This commonplace observation focuses our attention on the remaining factor in the Kaya Identity, wealth – and more particularly the issues of inequality and economic justice.

Addressing the population ‘issue’ therefore simply comes down a question of redistribution, and it is that which some find “explosive”.

To get to grips with such matters, we need not more technological innovation but a better understanding of the damaging effects of relentless economic growth; of the need to rethink the growth obsession; of the corrosive alienation generated by hyper-consumption; and of the need to think about the way we construct human identity.

This is the politics embedded in Kaya’s equation.

The technocrats cannot sidestep the politics, or dismiss it as too hard or too emotive, and try to suggest that technology will save us; that is holding out another false hope that will betray us as surely as the mirage of carbon markets will betray us. It becomes ever more clear, as Barry has put it so well, that to deal with climate change, we need social change.


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One response to “Getting climate policy back on course with the Kaya Identity

  1. Pingback: The kaya identity: Should we start thinking on demographic and economic growth caps? | urbdp598