11/17/2015 09:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Romm Critique of COP21 Impact Deeply Flawed

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Romm ignores similar MIT finding:
• Relies on Climate Interactive research with made-up reductions that depend almost entirely on a highly exaggerated baseline unsupported by mainstream analysis;
• Attacks Lomborg paper for disregarding Chinese 'peaking' promise while relying on research that doesn't include it either;
• Climate Interactive results for China depend on an exaggerated baseline - remove this assumption and the results are similar to the Lomborg paper;
• Inclusion of Chinese 'peaking' promise is inconsistent with a robust analysis of Paris 2016-2030 promises;
• Even if Chinese 'peaking' promise were included, results would not change significantly.

My research paper, "Impact of Current Climate Proposals" published in Global Policy, is the first peer-reviewed analysis of the impact of 2016-2030 global and national commitments made ahead of this December's Paris climate summit.

Using the peer-reviewed climate model MAGICC, I estimate the marginal impact of carbon reduction promises called INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) from the EU, USA, China and the rest of the world, along with the likely global policy output. My major finding is that the total effect is very small: less than 0.05°C difference by the end of the century.

I also explore what would happen if every nation were to extend its Paris promises every year for another 70 years after 2030. This is an optimistic scenario and not something promised by most nations. USA, for example, states that "the US target is for a single year: 2025." But even with such optimistic assumptions, my analysis shows that the temperature reduction by 2100 is still insignificant at just 0.17°C.


All of this is straightforward and can be replicated by anyone using the MAGICC model and some patience.

Yet my peer-reviewed research paper sparked an emotional response from environmentalist Joe Romm. His complaint is that I am overly pessimistic about Paris. In his customary style of ad hominem attacks and fervid language, he calls me a "widely debunked confusionist", labels my research "nonsense", a "lie" and "intellectually indefensible", and suggests his supporters use social media to go after the journal that published it.

Setting aside Mr. Romm's insults and attempts at provocation, I'd like to respond to the actual assertions.

MIT finding is ignored

My temperature change results are very similar to the findings of MIT's Joint Program on Global Change in Energy and Climate Outlook 2015 .

MIT stated: "A natural question is: How much do the INDCs proposed ahead of the COP21 meeting further reduce warming, assuming our estimates reflect the agreement and its implementation? ... The difference between the red and green lines is the additional contribution of COP21 policies, and that is about 0.2°C less warming by the end of the century."


Mr. Romm chooses to ignore MIT's finding which was broadly consistent with my analysis.

Reliance on Climate Interactive findings

Instead, Mr. Romm places much faith in the findings of a not-for-profit called Climate Interactive. Their findings, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, are represented by the following graph:


The graph is an ideal campaigning and advocacy tool: it shows that if governments do nothing to reduce climate change ("no action"), there will be temperature rises of 4.5°C. Promises made ahead of Paris ("current INDCs") would reduce temperature rises by one degree to 3.5°C, but this is still far from the goal embraced by climate advocates of restricting temperature rises to less than 2°C ("2°C pathway").

In addition to these numbers being unpublished in peer-reviewed literature, the authors have refused to share individual country data that would show how such pathways were constructed in the first place.

But it is possible, with work, to identify some of their assumptions. And this reveals that Mr. Romm has placed his faith in a very dubious piece of advocacy.

Climate Interactive reduction in emissions is made up

The Climate Interactive analysis relies on an incredibly far-fetched 'no action' scenario where the planet will emit huge amounts of carbon if it doesn't enact carbon-cutting policies.

It is this artificially high baseline - unsupported by any mainstream analysis - that accounts for the massive reduction that Climate Interactive expects from Paris.

Indeed, about 70% of the suggested temperature reduction identified by Climate Interactive is completely spurious.

We can see the size of the difference in the following figure, comparing the Climate Interactive "no action" baseline for the USA, to two 'Business as Usual' scenarios from nine mainstream, peer-reviewed models from the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum 24:


Globally, Climate Interactive equates "no action" with the planet emitting an astonishing 140Gt CO₂ equivalents every year towards the end of the century.

This is a fairly wild exaggeration. The UN Environment Programme, along with most responsible, mainstream organizations, estimates that without any climate policies after 2010, the planet would likely hit emissions of just under 100Gt.

My analysis used the gold standard for energy modeling from the latest Stanford Energy Modeling Forum, encompassing 10 of the world's top models, all individually and collectively peer reviewed. These find a very similar scenario to UNEP, with much lower emissions than Climate Interactive assumes.

This means that about two-thirds (about 2,000Gt) of Climate Interactive's entire expected emission reduction is a result of its artificial baseline, not of emissions reductions.

Since these emissions would never have taken place, Paris climate promises can't take credit for eliminating them.

Once we take this assumption away, we find that instead of a reduction of 1°C there is only a cut of about 0.3°C.

Of this, about 0.2°C represents the actual reductions - comparable to what my paper, MIT's work, and most other reputable organizations find.

The last 0.1°C appears mostly to be based on emission reductions happening far after the likely end-point of Paris in 2030. This exaggerates the effects of Paris. Hoping that more cuts happen after the period of the Paris treaty is not a robust way to analyze the effects of Paris.


The Chinese 'Peaking' promise

Mr. Romm objects that my analysis of Paris disregards a promise by China that its carbon emissions will peak somewhere around 2030.

He describes this hyperbolically as the "single most important" commitment made ahead of this year's climate summit, and suggests that by disregarding it from my analysis I made "an assumption so unjustifiable it should have rendered the entire paper unpublishable".

But if we piece back together the Climate Interactive work - again, their results are not published in any peer-reviewed journal - it appears that there is no substantial difference between the Climate Interactive scenario for China and my peer-reviewed paper's estimate.

Climate Interactive does not actually include a 'peak' for Chinese emissions, which was the crux of Romm's criticism of my work.

And my estimate has slightly lower overall emissions from China across the century:


Instead, the Climate Interactive findings of a substantial reduction from China are dependent on nothing more than an unbelievably high 'no-action' scenario.

Let's compare Climate Interactive's baseline scenario assumption for China with the median of 17 individually peer-reviewed reference scenarios in the collectively peer-reviewed Asia Modeling Exercise:


For most of the century, Climate Interactive assume that China with no climate policies will emit almost twice as much as what peer-reviewed models estimate.

It is Climate Interactive that is the outlier from mainstream analysis, not my own peer-reviewed research. Mr. Romm appears not to realize this.

Reasons for leaving out Chinese promise from analysis

In my article I tackled upfront what to make of far-off promises like China's. (I can only assume that Climate Interactive used the same approach, which is why they end up with almost the same China emission profile as I do, baseline notwithstanding).

I provided three interlocking arguments as to why any sound measurement of the outcomes of Paris should look only at the promises enacted and measurable between 2016-2030, not those outside the period:

First: It is difficult to defend the inclusion of targets with a very low likelihood of implementation.

In my article, I only include policies that have practical political implications soon and have a verifiable outcome by 2030.

It is undeniable that political targets further away are less likely to be implemented. Recent history clearly indicates that climate promises even 10-15 years ahead will be routinely flouted.

When China commits to reduce its carbon intensity of GDP by 60% to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, we can analyze the progression towards that goal very clearly over the next 15 years and clearly determine if it is met by 2030 - so this is included in my analysis.

However, the promise to "achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early" (often curiously misquoted, as for instance in "peak CO₂ emissions by 2030 at the latest") is something that will only have an effect after around 2030, and it is something that will first be verifiable around 2035 or later.

This is especially true given that Chinese energy statistics are notoriously opaque. Just in the last few weeks it became clear that China burned perhaps 17% more coal per year in recent years than was previously understood.

China's 'peaking' promise is very unlikely to be achieved based on economic reality alone. The cost can be identified from the Asia Modeling Exercise which indicates that the lowest GDP loss would be about $400bn or about 1.7% of GDP, and likely twice that. It strains credibility to expect China to commit such economic self-harm.

(It is worth noting in passing that China also promises in its INDC to be "democratic" in 2050. The one-party state's vow should probably be treated rather similarly to the suggestion that it will rein in economic growth so dramatically).

Second: my approach is methodologically clear. The alternative is unable to avoid a slippery slope that would include every target, vow, promise, or vague political undertaking.

In my analysis, I was consistent in ruling out longer-term promises that were further off and economically implausible.

I also left out the US promise of "deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050." Data from the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum for the US shows an average GDP loss at more than $1 trillion annually, if done efficiently. If not, which seems to be the only constant in climate policy, the cost will likely double to almost $2.5 trillion or 7.5% of US GDP in 2050.

And I left out the EU promise "to reduce its emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990." Data from the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum shows the average GDP loss at almost €3 trillion annually, if done efficiently. If not, the cost will likely double to almost €6 trillion or 25% of EU GDP in 2050.

If we were to include the Chinese 'peaking' promise, why not also include the US promise to cut 80% by 2050 and the EU promise to cut 80-95% by 2050, both of which are mentioned in their INDCs?

Including these promises would make a mockery of any real analysis of what the Paris treaty can achieve.

Indeed, since almost every nation has signed up to reduce temperature rises to 2°C, and about 80-90 nations including the EU and the US 'endorse' this target in their INDCs, where should we draw the line?

That Mr. Romm didn't question the exclusion of any of these undertakings speaks volumes. Indeed, the only real question is why he argues that China's unlikely promise should have been included.

Mr. Romm appears to pick and choose which 'targets' should be included. In doing so, he essentially concedes the point.

Third: the commitment period of 2016-2030 is by far the most common understanding of what Paris constitutes.

This is true whether we pay attention to the United Nations or at the official material from nations themselves:

  • The UNFCCC in its "Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the intended nationally determined contributions" describes the central results as emission reductions achieved in 2025 and 2030, not further. It specifically labels possible emission reductions after 2030 as actions taken by nations "beyond the time frames stated in their INDCs (e.g. beyond 2025 and 2030)."
  • The US clearly states that its understanding of its INDC is for 2025 and not further: "The U.S. target is for a single year: 2025."
  • The EU sets its targets for 2030 and not any further.
  • In its own INDC, China clearly writes what it expects from the Paris agreement, namely to "formulate and implement programs and measures to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions for the period 2020-2030." So even China itself is unequivocal that the Paris deal is not about promises after 2030, but up until 2030.

What does history tell us?

By Mr. Romm's logic, an analysis conducted in 1997 on the likely effect of the Kyoto Protocol should have included not just the specific commitments made in Kyoto, but every far-reaching promise made around that time. By his logic, we should have assumed that not only would this treaty be implemented, but that stronger and ever-increasing cuts would consistently be made as a result of policy (and not economic downturns) for decades. History shows that we would have been utterly wrong to do so.

Should such an analysis of Kyoto have included President Bill Clinton's 1993 announcement that the US would reduce its emissions by 2000? That promise was never fulfilled. According to the Washington Post, the US administration's excuse was that the "goal is no longer possible because the economy has grown more rapidly than expected." The commitment failed even though it was for just seven years later, was to be implemented right away, and under the same president who made it.

Every industrialized nation actually promised in 1992 to return their emissions in 2000 to 1990-levels, - and almost every single one missed that target.

Even the commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol itself ended up meaning nothing. The treaty was abandoned by the USA, and eventually by Russia, Japan and Canada.

We would clearly not have known this if we were conducting analysis in 1997 - but the examples show that it is folly to assume that we can realistically believe targets much further ahead to be right.

What happens when we include China's commitment? Not much

I stand by my arguments for not including the unlikely and expensive 'peaking' vow of China.

But even if it had been included in the analysis, what Mr. Romm labels the "single most important" promise actually matters very little.

Running the data in MAGICC shows that allowing for China peaking in 2030 would only reduce temperatures by a miniscule amount more in 2100: a reduction of 0.1°C.

Mr. Romm enthusiastically concluded that "China's commitment alone -- which Lomborg explicitly ignores -- reduces projected future temperatures by 0.4°C in 2100!" It appears he based this on the wildly exaggerated baseline from Climate Interactive.

Mr. Romm's liking of this point notwithstanding, it appears unsupported by modeling based on the correct, peer-reviewed baselines (UNEP or EMF27) and on peer-reviewed climate models.

Wanting a different result isn't grounds to change research

Mr. Romm is an environmentalist and an activist. It is understandable that, for purposes of campaigning, he wants to be able to argue that Paris will make a large climate impact, even if more is needed. But he errs in his emotional dismissal of my peer-reviewed analysis.

The findings that he prefers are not based on correct, peer-reviewed baselines (UNEP or EMF27) and as a result lead to wild overestimates of temperature cuts.

Mr. Romm's endorsement of this approach is disturbing.

Mr. Romm does not explain why he would add the Chinese 'peaking' vow to analysis but not include other far-fetched promises.

He misses the fact that his own favored analysis doesn't include the Chinese 'peaking' vow either.

He does not provide a basis for the suggestion that China's is the "single most important" commitment.

He ignores the fact that I use the standard definition of Paris that is used by UNFCCC and all major players in their INDCs.

He does not acknowledge that my approach avoids a slippery slope where we would end up including every single political commitment, no matter how infeasible.

He ignores the fact that my finding is consistent with similar work by MIT.

And despite Mr. Romm's claims to the contrary, the inclusion of China's promise in my analysis would have a tiny impact on the results.

This should worry Mr Romm as an environmentalist, because it shows that the approach that his advocating for Paris has serious flaws and will have very little real impact.