Guest assessment: Consumers - not voters - will ultimately steer climate policy

Last week, Calenary-based oil producer Cenovus Energy announced plans to help combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by barrel by 30% by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

At least one environmental group has criticized the Cenovus announcement for not going far enough, but at this stage in the public debate on what to do about climate change, this kind of voluntary initiative can be the best compromise when citizens are so fiercely divided about the right ones government response.

As reported by CBC, in response to the announcement by Cenovus Energy, Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada complained that the company only promised to keep its total emissions flat until 2030 (because lower emissions per barrel would be offset by higher total production).

Stewart illustrated his concerns with an analogy: “I compare it to the observation that the ship’s captain has seen the iceberg and has promised to maintain course and speed.”

The problem is that many people, including experts, genuinely disagree that man-made climate change is analogous to a ship heading for an iceberg.

For example, the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2018 went to William Nordhaus for his work on climate change policy.

The work of Nordhaus suggests that even if all governments were to implement an “optimal” CO2 tax, the cumulative global warming by 2100 would have been reduced from around 4.1 ° C (the zero policy basis) to 3.5 ° C (allow the “optimal” amount of heating)).

Compare the optimal 3.5 degree warming of Nordhaus with the ambitious goal of the UN of 1.5 degrees.

My point here is not to cease William Nordhaus’ work as a gospel, but rather to show that this recent Nobel Prize winner is not close to supporting the ice-cream organization of Greenpeace Canada.

This contrast is the reason why a political approach to climate change is so elusive.

Citizens around the world are being asked to suffer from higher electricity and gas prices to prevent a future nightmare scenario.

Because the pain here and now is clear, when the public begins to hear that these future scenarios may be exaggerated, they then choose political officials who weaken or destroy political obligations.

This happened in Australia, the United States and here at home.

In this context, voluntary commitments from industry – which themselves can be partly motivated by pressure from large investment funds – represent a compromise.

If companies can make modest improvements in emissions without causing unnecessary problems for investors and customers, they can do this and advertise these results to the public.

Consumers can then decide whether they want to pay a little more for goods and services that are delivered in a more “socially responsible” way.

Investments by companies in new technology will bring us along the learning curve, making it cheaper to realize even more emission reductions if desired.

In this context, environmentalists can focus their attention on getting the public to change their buying patterns, instead of trying to maintain a series of victories at the polls and forcing their vision of society for decades into the future.

Convincing one household at a time is a better long-term strategy than a political approach. Indeed, the truly “sustainable” reduction of emissions will take place with new technologies arising from voluntary decisions by industry and customers.

Robert P. Murphy is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.