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The current emission plans are crap 


From the beginning of thought about making national climate plans, the multi-sectoral method of achieving emission reductions has been chosen as the favourite path to regulate future emissions. How does it work?

  1. First, the sectors are defined, for example: buildings, transport, nature, energy, industry, agricultural sector, tertiary sector.
  2. Then their direct emissions and the amount of other energy inputs (= electricity) are recorded.
  3. Then one examines on the basis of the technically possible at that moment in each sector which reductions per sector could be achieved
  4. Subsequently one tries to get the sum of these sectoral reductions to agree with a previously or in the meantime adjusted overall reduction time trajectory and reduction target.
  5. Next, the sectors are made responsible for the agreed reductions, and stimulating/supporting policies are implemented.

As far as I am concerned, such a planning process based on the multi-sector method flutters around the emission space just as desperately as a bird entering a bedroom. I am going to explain why this is a worthless method and why we are working ourselves into hell by doing so.

Where do you arrive once you've completed the five steps outlined above? What do you have at the end of the process?

  • An arena full of competitors biting at one another. Who has to reduce how much? Every allocation key is contested. Win-win measures will lead to hasty innovation fever via subsidies (see the biomass debacle), and win-loss measures (such as taxes) will be eroded via lobbies. Result: time after time faltering implementation. See road pricing DE, NL, and FR.
  • A sieve from which emissions can flow in all directions, because there is far too little attention paid to the inputs of each sector. For example, one is only recording the energy input of an inhabitant or producer, but what else they bring in every day from all over the world and their immediate surroundings, one does not quantify anything at all. Because one looks away from those flows, the sectoral description captures only part of the dynamics. Each sector is leaking because it remains free to compensate for any reduction through inputs from elsewhere or to use other emission space through a different structure. Each citizen remains free to use as much electricity as she or he wants, buy a new car as often and fill up with as much fuel as she wants, receive as many packages a day as she desires, use the Internet as much as she wants. He or she does not have to account anywhere for the emissions implicated with more or less of those input flows. They remain invisible: the method does not disclose them. There is also no brake in any sector on expansions (such as extra refrigeration in a store, or adding a manufacturing branch to a farm, or a heavier truck purchased by a transportation company) or on new ventures in a sector. Tesla is building a giant factory near Berlin and getting all the emissions space it needs. More like fifty IT companies are building data centers full of energy-hungry servers in the northern Netherlands. The construction of charging station infrastructure, wind farms and PV power plants is encouraged everywhere, and automated distribution centers are invading business parks. In short, this approach will never put a brake on volumes, and thus will get no control over global emissions.
  • A blunt axe with which you cannot prioritize. You can't tell an industry, "Don't produce that kind of service or product any more because it’s not really indispensable for the fulfilment of basic necessities of life". The producer has freedom to fulfil demand. They use each other's input-demand to justify their own output volume. Even environmental organizations participate in this logic; your pants are falling down. See for example the statement with which Natuur en Milieu (NL) agrees to subsidize H2-electrolysers (which lead to 20% more power consumption and to 4 to 5 million more CO2 emissions for the energy sector in the Netherlands): "We consider green hydrogen as essential for industry". This statement can only refer to the refinery and chemical sectors. So implicitly, they declare the volumes of those sectors as 'untouchable', and thus those of fertilizers, kerosene, diesel, plastics, pesticides, paints, etc. As if we could not survive without that junk. Yet our ability to prioritize economic activity is precisely the main lever by which the climate problem will have to be solved. Because in order to keep climate liveable, we have to start living within limits. So we have to start limiting ourselves massively to what is most necessary. So we have to start letting go massively of what is unnecessary for the time being. We have to start choosing and determining which services and products volumes are priorities for (prioritize) maintaining our bodily functions. What must be considered indispensable to survive en masse?

The presupposition converts the goal into a pipe dream

The last sentences in the previous paragraph bring me straight to the core error behind choosing and shaping the multi-sector method viz.

The design of this method is totally determined by the presupposition that our future is only worth living if the present main sectors of the economy can, if not expand their interactions with each other and the world, at least maintain them. So in that presupposition, the idea of limitation and restriction is essentially already buried. But believe me, this very international transactionalism is important only to the extent that it can offer us a future. With the aforementioned presupposition one does not locate oneself far enough above the situation to solve our climate problem and to keep humanity going.

If this transactionalism (i.e. the pattern of interaction with the world economy) fundamentally harms and destroys our food and living conditions worldwide, it must be called into question. As has been  done in the Dasgupta review: "...we cannot rely on technology alone: consumption and production patterns will need to be fundamentally restructured. Breaking the links between damaging forms of consumption and production and Nature can be accelerated through a range of policies that change prices and behavioural norms".
In the international climate movement this urgency, precisely because of the concrete failure of the IPCC-UN approach (although praiseworthy in its problem definition and organization), has now been recognized to such an extent that people increasingly realize that we must move towards a human survival strategy that is as basic as possible in order to realize an emergency halt on the use of all fossil fuels within 5 years.

Whatever the reason, the trajectories plotted with regard to emission development, with regard to climate variables and with regard to effects on the dynamics of nature are simply not correct. Everything is spinning out of control much faster than has been thought and predicted. Greenland and the Antarctic are melting fast, the oceans are warming deeply, many drought-prone areas are becoming unstable, infernal fires and storms are occurring more frequently in large areas, and biodiversity is collapsing dramatically. The socio-economic responses to all these impacts are also huge and unforeseen.

Such as: ● the global increase in coastal and river protection works, ● moving population and cities (Jakarta), ● air conditioning intensification worldwide, ● the rapid increase in renewable energy projects, whose implementation involves hefty emissions, ● water supply works in every city and village, ● increase in infrastructure to cope with food instability and immigration, ● internationalization of fishing fleets to compensate for catch losses, ● Russia's and Canada's massive cultivation projects in permafrost areas, ● agricultural rezoning and cultivation of the Amazon, ● China's large-scale infrastructure and agricultural projects in Asia and Africa ● increase of fire protection infrastructure, etc.

All of this galloping innovation and adaptation activity will continue to run on fossil fuels because we have nothing else at the moment, except less than 15% renewables.

Getting emissions under control through the sectoral method is impossible

In short: the current models and methods make us leave out or ignore significant parts of the climate and (non-)economic dynamics. As a result of this deficiencies, the reduction paths that have been set out now are probably much too long, and the sectoral reduction plans are much too liberal and permissive to gain hold in the reality show that's going on. We must give up much more (= unnecessary economic activity) of our lifestyle much faster (= within 5 years) if we are not to be wiped out. See this recent interview with Michael Mann in which he sums this up once more.

Through the sector-based method, one does not get a grip on emissions. Worse: that method does not want much grip. By declaring the inputs (= outputs of others) sacred (i.e. unlimited) in advance, you actually sign for an expanding world that runs counter to all the ever more fiercely flaring natural and social instabilities. With that misrepresentation you are also constantly breathing the unwavering rigidity of the present economic structure in everyone's face. So you never get them to think that, given the climate emergency, we could also start limiting national and global flows to some extent.

That the mind when disconnected from feelings will rather perish in greatness ("born to run") than live in humbleness − because it uses the cruel aspects of love (getting hurt, becoming abandoned, to die, to be slaughtered) as an argument to distance itself from all forms of proximity, and consequently finally ends up in a crash in the middle of nowhere − is a suspicion I can substantiate quite well with experiences. But, sorry, the insidious operationalization of that basic attitude in the sectoral CO2 reduction method blindsided me (China too, for that matter) surpisingly, and trapped me for a while in an optical illusion. You see a duck (reduction) but it is a rabbit (expansion). Useless in other words. A very bad compass.

But then how?

We want − because we have to − limit the scope of emissions. So our approach to global emissions has to find its steering touch in (intervene at) the point where the volume of an emission is decided. And strangely enough that is not to be found at the producers of products and services − they just listen and answer the (for them sacred) demand − but that point is hidden in the decision making of everybody about buying products (P) or using services (D). That is where demand is determined, and with it, the volume of associated emissions. So in order to get emissions under control we don't need a sectoral reduction scheme, but an individual reduction scheme. And installing the intended steering touch (see above) could be implemented by making true that within the individual decision-making process emissions as a precondition are gonna play just as decisive a role as money.

Such an individual reduction scheme must be (a) waterproof and (b) reliable. Why the second? Look, we are getting into such super perilous waters with humanity's survival that we cannot afford to make any more mistakes. The pandemic and the fires of last year are smashing us in the face that we can no longer afford to underestimate the forces of nature by more than one centimetre, or to think that half measures be sufficient to beat them. This whole earth system has been driven so close on the verge of instability that it will effortlessly and totally crush us if we do not very soon start providing en masse what it needs, namely zero emissions. We are in trouble. Nobody is going to come to our aid. That means that we can no longer be flexible or permissive in this reduction scheme. We have to establish order and enforce it rock-hard. It will be of a slightly different type than what citizens have been used to up until now. Because?

Up till now we have beefed up the emissions to extremes so we need to make huge reductions. We have also already determined how far the emissions in totality have to be lowered in order to balance them with the natural absorption, not yet at what speed, but that does not matter here: we can derive the individually available emission space from that total. An important point here is that if humanity has to reduce so much, it is impossible to allow any leeway (freedom) in how much people have to contribute. Only one "way back" would then be acceptable, namely to allocate an equal annual emission space to every living soul.

With any other variant − such as a reduction percentage on current emission volumes − you run into major obstacles: (a) mutual accusations about the illegitimacy of obtained or consciously chosen emission space in the past; see the reparation-for-slavery discussion and the discussion about historical guilt to warming; (b) precise determination of current use is necessary; (c) long-term implementation will prove impossible due to accumulating feelings of injustice between groups and classes.

Allocating everyone an equally large annual emission space (= budget) does not have all these disadvantages. Such an annual budget can be used individually, and set situationally (climate zone, age, health). No determination of current use is needed here, and implementation is facilitated by the widely shared notion that equality produces the least amount of mutual fuss, and thus works best.

This is also a totally democratic way of mitigation, because everyone's vision and value configuration around all aspects (food, eroticism, prestige, health, safety) of life comes into play during the deliberation around the choice of the own spending of the emission (and money) budget. With the resulting bundle of choices from the total globally available product and service package, each person expresses her own valuations and rankings within them in her unique bite out of the total emission space. Since you do not intervene in any way in the operation of P(roducts) and S(ervices) productions, the citizens determine with each other the extent to which sectors are put into operation, and what mode of operation is preferred within them. And in general, each firm in each sector only accumulates emissions space (for production and innovation) the size of the demand for their outputs. In the emission budget of a citizen, enjoyment of certain public services is of course obligatory by birth (defense services, justice, education), others perhaps not (such as royalty, broadcasting, social security). The emission budget of those services depends on the number of people who choose to have access to them.

But then how? Details

This approach has three main advantages: (1) it is waterproof, (2) everyone keeps the freedom of spending, and (3) through this freedom of spending, the conversion of all production (of P and S) to low-emission processes and practices is achieved without the government having to pursue a policy with regard to producers.

As follows: The only thing that needs to be done is to record the use of everyone's budget, and to block overruns. This requires:

  1. Each product or service also has to have an emission score in addition to a price.
  2. This emission score is the sum of all emissions that have been necessary during the entire chain of the production process, including the emissions of the transport services that have taken place in between.
  3. Because the intermediate products (= inputs) that each producer did use to make products or services, already had an emission score, it is therefore only necessary that the emissions from his operations − mainly direct emissions plus depreciation emissions (i.e. replacement emissions in proportion to lifetime use) − are quantified and added to the sum of the emission scores of his inputs plus the emissions from the transport services to get those inputs to him from his suppliers.
  4. But note: the emission score of the transport services will not be largely omitted (i.e. international air and shipping traffic), and half attributed (i.e. only direct emissions), but also integrate the emission scores of all inputs used (i.e. usage of infrastructure, and also the non-CO2 impacts of aviation and shipping), in proportion to the transported weight of course. See this explanation. It follows from this explanation that it is not surprising that, despite twenty years of emission-reducing measures, the CO2 (and N2O) concentration in the atmosphere keeps rising faster and faster. Firstly, because of economic volume growth, of course, but secondly, because everyone − by underestimating or omitting transport emissions − can calculate their other inputs (including energy inputs) to be low-emission, by means of the numerous parameters (within that calculation) in which transport emissions play a role. So, errors in transport emissions propagate through any emission calculation of long chain productions not only via transport, but also via any input in which transport played a major role (such as energy).
  5. The same full accountability (see 4) applies of course to the making of an emission score of the energy inputs (such as electricity or gas, etc) that every citizen or producer uses to produce something. All emissions from the upstream activities around the production of an energy input − such as maintenance emissions, replacement parts, the depreciation emissions (you have to renew a wind turbine in 25 years, for example), recycling emissions, insurance emissions, staff emissions, administrative emissions, transport emissions − are included in the emission score through the accumulation of the sub-productions, and thus end up on the user's plate, in proportion to their use.

How does it work when implemented?

The dynamics that emerge resemble that of a system that constantly organises itself towards a central equilibrium. In this case: towards the most low-emission lifestyle possible for everyone. Why?

  • The citizens will start to be aware of their priorities and will choose products and services that satisfy what they themselves consider to be their basic needs. All superfluous economic activity will then die a gentle death. That is exactly what we need, and what the approach to the climate problem ultimately aims for, namely survival within limits.
  • Users choose the product or service with the lowest emission score in order to optimize their spendings. This consumer behaviour will wipe a large part of the energy consumption and transport use out of the chains. Why is that? The important emissions criterion during the weighing of choices puts local and manual products and services at an advantage, and the long chain and long distance products and services at a disadvantage. The result is an enormous demand for local products and services, for local sharing of products and services, and for local reuse. This triggers the creativity (research and design) to produce all the necessary things locally with locally available resources. It creates local employment and so on.

What about the sectors?

They can be left completely alone. No governmental interference, no measures, no taxes, no subsidies. All actors within each sector will organise their productions automatically towards the lowest possible emission level in order to keep generating enough demand for their outputs.
But one very important point is that their emissions and inputs must be recorded in real time. This can be set up and monitored in parallel with financial accounting. The current well-to-wheel provisions and LCA analyses are totally unsuitable for this purpose. There are far too many black holes in them, and their setup is too general. Real-time monitoring of all operations in production chains is required in order to be able to present the unique emission score of each (intermediate) product or service, per supplier, at any time through the emission integral of all operations involved.

Subsequently this emission information element has a key role to play in the daily decision making of every world citizen

  1. by enabling citizens and producers to continuously use those scores during deciding about their inputs (which ones, and from whom), and about the kind of transport of those inputs.
  2. by enabling producers to make reliable demand-based long-term decisions on innovation and introduction of new products and services
  3. by enabling the governments to spot and correct any overshooting of the emission budgets of citizens.

This way, all current conflicts (and leaks) around emission reduction between and within sectors disappear like snow in the sun, and implementation of national and regional reduction paths is safe, efficient, and sure.

Jac Nijssen, 2021
This article has been written February 2021.
A rudimentary Dutch version was published on fall 2020.