What is an emission target?

An emission target or emission reduction target is a promise by politicians that they don’t have to keep. Not just any promise, of course; it’s a promise about how much CO2 will be emitted by all activities in their country. In other words, something that’s fairly hard to control.

The main reason they don’t have to keep it, and realistically can’t keep it, is that they probably won’t be in office any more when the date for the target arrives. They know there’s no way to hold them accountable and no point in doing so after they’ve left office. Besides that, people, at least regular voters, understand that it’s a promise that’s hard to keep.

It’s interesting that these targets are held in such high regard. Promises by politicians typically aren’t. But “emission target” somehow has the flavor of something more substantial and solid. One reason may be that emission targets are numbers, and numbers tend to impress. They make it seem like you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. The emissions targets are even based on calculation. The only problem is that the calculations ignore the error bars in the original numbers, giving the impression that the result is precise when it isn’t.

I said promise, but if it’s just a target, it’s even less than a promise, or perhaps it can be considered a promise to try. On the other hand, we get binding emissions targets. Those are actual promises. The Kyoto agreement, for instance, had binding emission reduction targets. But that was in 1990, and many countries, especially affluent ones, failed to achieve those binding targets.

So what happens when a country fails to achieve a binding target? Apparently very little. Some scolding from environmentalists, but even they know it’s too late to anything about it, so they just ask for new promises. Bigger ones, perhaps. More ambitious targets. Worthless, but bigger. Less likely to be implemented, because they’re less likely to truly be taken seriously. Yes, the environmental organizations are part of the charade. They keep rewarding politicians for promises, not results.

Sometimes though, they just promise to promise. Sometimes it even looks like a promise to promise to promise.

I don’t think there’s been a COP as important as Copenhagen since but now all eyes are turned to the COP that will take place in France in 2015. Last year in Doha, it was agreed that in 2015 countries will agree to set targets that will be implemented by 2020.

In short, they agreed to agree to set targets. Not that it’s never useful to agree to come to an agreement later. Sometimes it’s a start and better than nothing. But when even the final result means little, a good start is fairly pointless.

But given the premise—one which in my opinion is getting more dubious all the time—that we need to relase less CO2 into the atmosphere, what would be a better way? Well, you can have targets, but keep them realistic. That would be a better start. Climate pragmatism makes a lot of sense, trying to take the real world into account instead of wishfully thinking that bigger promises will get everyone fired up and taking action.

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