Sunday, July 08, 2007

Criticisms of Contraction and Convergence

I don't like the "contraction and convergence" approach to stopping climate change.

Why? Well, I have a number of reasons. C&C states that we should set a global CO2 target lower than present (contraction), and that poor countries should be allowed to expand up to it while rich ones cut down to it (convergence). The argument is that everyone should have an equal CO2 ration.

What's wrong with that? Well, it takes care of equity but does nothing for efficiency. On this classic policy trade-off, it goes 100 per cent for equity. This is a really serious problem; if we are to fix the problem, it's important to think about who can save CO2 fastest and cheapest. This feeds into a second issue: C&C assumes that CO2 emissions are actually good.

Yeah, it's counterintuitive; Mayer Hillman, the plan's inventor, is as dark green as they get. But it assumes that people actually *want* CO2 - that it's something people choose, rather than an unpleasant byproduct. As Amory Lovins says, people don't want energy, they want cold beer. I have no desire to emit CO2. If the choice is available, I'd rather not. But C&C works on the principle that it is only possible to prosper by increasing CO2 emissions - hence the imperative need that they be shared equally.

Anyway, back to efficiency. Imagine you're in a lifeboat that's taking on water. You need to bail the water out faster than it comes in. In the boat with you is a fat bloke who refuses to accept that the water is real, various average normals of differing physiques, and a big strong Indian sailor who, however, thinks it's a better idea to row as fast as possible towards land. The ideal solution is *not* to get everyone baling at the same rate. Rather, you'd want to get the best bailers bailing to the best of their ability. Even if it's not fair that the fat guy takes up so much of the boat's buoyancy, it's not useful either - throwing him overboard would use up far too much energy and risk capsizing the craft. Yeah, bailing at the same speed would be fair, but it wouldn't maximise the rate at which water left the boat. You cannot eat fairness.

Now, the upshot of this is that the sources of emissions growth are highly important. It's easiest to change things where the change is happening. Rather than moralising about how China's economic development is all because of terrible consumers, it's dramatically more useful to think about how factories there might benefit from some of Lovins' design work, aimed at reducing their energy use by a factor of 10, or how best to reward countries like Brazil for not clearing forests. C&C just offers one group (the developed world) blood, sweat, toil, and tears, and another group (the developing world) rather less money. Offering them not-very-much development and the same technology as before is not an attractive proposition.

Neither is trying to persuade the public not to buy their stuff. C&C fans tend to pull into extremely tight defensive circles at this point. Well, y'know, the gains were only achieved by offshoring industry to China. Buying stuff with fewer miles will, ah, bring industry back, and we know that less CO2 is emitted per dollar of GDP here. But the gains only came from offshoring! (Not true, anyway. Germany's emissions fell, and it's a bigger exporter than anyone else, even China.)

Further, the operational suggestions tend to be awful. C&C is based on the idea of an individual CO2 ration, which unavoidably leads to the notion of an individual CO2 ration card, which is essentially a national ID card and tracking system in earth tones. In fact, it might have to be a global system. One of the reasons why I like universal tax and benefit proposals, by the way, is that they minimise the opportunities for mass surveillance.

Carbon tax and redistribute. It's the only way.

Update: have a read of "Elizabeth Economy"'s piece in the Nation.


Anonymous said...

This commentary falls prey to the old canard of neo-classical economics that equity and efficiency are a trade-off.

This is asserted as true in the partial sense that exists in the short-term. Holding this position usually results in the perception that climate change is a long-term problem that is probably beyond the wit of man to resolve [which may indeed 'become true'].

However, responding to avoid dangerous climate change is a 'full-term' requirement. The UN Climate Convention requires that we stop atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations from rising out of our control. These are a stock that is rising. The emissions causing this rise are a flow; like a bath into which the tap is flowing, to avoid overspill the tap must be turned right off and this - to swithch back to the emissions - is the full-term requirement on which humanity's future now depend.

This requirement is the widely supported concept of Contraction and Convergence.

A DVD commissioned by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change presenting Contraction and Convergence has been distributed to all UK MPs and Peers. It is endorsed by numerous eminent spokespersons who are interviewed at length on the DVD.

Copies of the DVD can be obtained by written request to GCI aubrey.meyer [at]

Alternatively, as a large file [overnight download] interview material is retrievable at this link: -

The DVD also includes a heuristic animation of Contraction and Convergence for a risk analysis of different rates of sink-failure endorsed by prominent industry persons. This is a large file [overnight download] and is retrievable at this link:

A context animation the arguments, presented at the Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA] international conference in Venice last October, is here: - or
[Note: - touch buttons to advances *within* scenes and touch logos to advance *between* scenes].

GCI’s definition statement for C&C is here: -

General referencing for the C&C provenance is here: -

A concept/context map of C&C comparing three rates of change for

[a] Contraction and Concentrations
[b] Contraction and Convergence
[c] Benefits of Growth versus Damages from Climate
[d] Contraction and Conversion

is here: -

Some promotional material is here: -

Alex said...

I've decided to let your comment stand on the principle that anyone has a right to reply, even though you don't appear to have read the post you are commenting on. For example, "Holding this position usually results in the perception that climate change is a long-term problem that is probably beyond the wit of man to resolve" is a 180-degree misstatement of my views.

I rather suspect that you copy this screed into every comments thread regarding C&C you find. This is spam, but I am willing to tolerate it this once.

If you have substantive criticisms, please fire away.

Arkady said...

I rather suspect that you copy this screed into every comments thread regarding C&C you find.

You're right. Googled it for keywords.

JonHendry said...

Obviously, the people in the boat should try to persuade the fat guy that they're floating on a sea of pie, so he'll jump overboard himself.

Anonymous said...

The effort expended in obliging the fat guy to swim to the shore may be more than compensated by the moral effect on the remaining bailers and rowers.

Anonymous said...

OK - you ask for substantive criticism.

Please look at the series of images at this links and choose a scenario [ppm value and rates of C&C i.e. including degree of risk] and then say whether you feel that your recommendation of 'tax' without such an international agreement is a sufficient response to the challenge.

That is about as substantive as it gets.

You can look at the images as stills at this draft: -

or if you like and you send me your postal address i'll send you a copy of the DVD.

If you feel any of us can by-pass all of that I don't.

Aubrey Meyer

Matthew said...

Wouldn't the ETS currently set up work just as well if china were to join, with the advantage that it doesn't look like British taxes are being sent to China?

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