How Climate Economics supports the Paris agreement temperature targets

New research building on Nobel Prize winner Nordhaus’ past contributions shows reaching UN climate targets is a good investment for the planet

Two years ago William Nordhaus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work on “integrated assessment modeling” (IAM) and his Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy (DICE)—a framework designed to analyze the interplay between the economy and climate change, and used to assess economically optimal CO2 emission pathways and the social cost of carbon (SCC). Now a new paper published in Nature Climate Change demonstrates that a 1.5 to 2 degree target in line with the UN Paris agreement is economically optimal when the DICE model is updated to reflect newer research and latest expert assessment.

As I described in a blog about Nordhaus’ Nobel Prize two years ago, there were several ways new research could strengthen the results from Nordhaus’ DICE model and other IAMs. In this new paper, Martin C. Hänsel and co-authors (including Daniel Johansson, Christian Azar and EDF Senior Contributing Economist Thomas Sterner) made a number of such modifications to the baseline assumptions to update the results coming out of Nordhaus’ DICE model.

Two of their key updates relates to the economic assumptions/inputs to the model:

  • Updating the damage function (the assumed relationship between climatic changes and economic damages) to reflect a recent meta-analysis of climate damage estimates; and
  • Updating how equity between present and future generations is taken into account in DICE by revising the parameters determining the social discount rate. The choice of discount rate has a large impact on the results coming out of IAMs, since it determines the weight given to the climate damages affecting future generations.  This has spurred a long-standing debateespecially since the value of at least one of the parameters typically discussed is based on value judgments. Hänsel et al therefore chose to update the values of the parameters determining the social discount rate according to a recent survey of expert opinions.

The authors also made a number of additional updates to reflect new research in climate science and thereby improve the assumptions determining the relationship between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and temperature change (which include assumptions with respect to the global carbon cycle and the energy balance model translating radiative forcing to temperature impacts).

The authors also considered the impact of:

  • NETs (negative emissions technologies) such as afforestation, Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), and direct air capture. By providing the additional option of negative emissions after 2050, NETs further reduce the optimal equilibrium temperature, but also leads to a lower SCC in 2020 since the availability of NETs makes it optimal to postpone some emission reductions. However, it’s important to note that the potential magnitude of NETs available and on what timeline is debated and, for some strategies, still to be demonstrated.
  • Emission pathways with higher abatement of non-CO2 GHG emissions (which are not determined inside the DICE model) and make even lower equilibrium temperatures attainable. This illustrates the value of also addressing short term climate forcers such as methane emissions.

Both these latter updates contribute to a reduction in the economically optimal equilibrium temperature in DICE (i.e., the long run global average temperature which would provide the theoretically optimal balance between the social cost of climate damages and the costs of emission reductions).

The combined results of all these updates – reflecting recent findings in the climate economics and climate science literature – to the baseline assumptions in DICE are:

  • The SCC in 2020 is twice as high with all the other updates but with Nordhaus’ baseline assumptions for the social discount rate left unchanged. This is well in line with the strong consensus that SCCs at the levels produced with the baseline assumptions in DICE ($39 per tonne) significantly underestimate the true social costs of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Optimal climate policy according to this updated DICE model keeps equilibrium temperature below 2 °C in 2100 in three quarters of all model runs.

Despite these key updates to the DICE framework, there are still—as the authors also point out—additional enhancements that can be made to improve this type of climate economic analysis, which weighs the costs and benefits of climate action. Such enhancements include consideration of risk and uncertainty and the representation of so-called “tipping points” as well as taking into account that the value of environmental assets relative to other goods and services may increase as they suffer a larger share of the costly damages from climate change.

Overall, these new findings show that the temperature targets in the Paris agreement (where countries committed to limiting the global temperature rise to well below 2 °C and to actively pursue a 1.5 °C target) are also supported by climate economic analysis and that reaching the UN climate targets is a good investment for the planet.

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