‘Alternative facts’ undermine polemic against the Paris Agreement

Commentary article by Matt Ridley in 'The Times' on 8 May 2017.

In another polemical column that appears to have escaped thorough fact-checking by the comment desk at ‘The Times’, Viscount Ridley has used a set of ‘alternative facts’ to urge President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change

The article, reproduced on Viscount Ridley’s website and in ‘The Australian’ newspaper, is characteristically packed with false claims. For instance, Viscount Ridley, who is a member of the all-male “Academic Advisory Council” of the Global Warming Policy Foundation for climate change ‘sceptics’, argues that the Paris Agreement is “not legally binding”.

But he is wrong. The Paris Agreement came into force on 4 November 2016 and is legally binding for the 145 Parties, including the United States, which have so far ratified it.

Viscount Ridley is perhaps confusing the Agreement with the ‘nationally determined contributions’ pledged by each country, which are not formally part of it and so are not legally binding.

He describes these contributions as “feeble”, citing a notorious paper by Dr Bjorn Lomborg, a political scientist with a track record of serious mistakes, which contains fundamental methodological flaws that render its results meaningless.

In that paper, published in the ‘Global Policy’ journal in 2015, Dr Lomborg claims that the nationally determined contributions for 2025 or 2030 collectively would only reduce global warming by 0.17 Celsius degrees by 2100 in a scenario which he bizarrely labels as “Optimistic INDC”.

However, as I pointed out in a rebuttal published by the same journal, Dr Lomborg assumes a massive increase in global annual emissions of greenhouse gases after 2030, hence hiding the real impact of the nationally determined contributions.

For instance, China’s nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement states that it aims to “achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early”.

But Dr Lomborg ignores this and instead assumes under his “Optimistic INDC” scenario that China’s emissions increase strongly after 2030 and by 2060 are more than double their level in 2010.

As his calculation of the temperature rise by 2100 depends primarily on cumulative emissions between 2015 and 2100, Dr Lomborg’s paper simply presents the consequences of his own extreme assumptions about annual emissions between 2030 and 2100, not the value of the nationally determined contributions.

A more courageous author and journal would have decided to withdraw a paper that was shown to have such basic defects. But Dr Lomborg has instead continued to promote it through the echo chamber of climate change denial, including newspaper articles sneaked past comment editors who lack the knowledge to spot the huge faults.

By contrast, a robust and rigorous assessment of the nationally determined contributions published by the United Nations Environment Programme in November 2016 concluded that the nationally determined contributions, if implemented, would mean that total global annual emissions in 2030 would be about half way between a ‘business as usual’ baseline and a pathway consistent with the goal of the Paris Agreement of “[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

Not content with relying on this erroneous contribution by Dr Lomborg, Viscount Ridley also cites another of his fake facts, about the costs of implementing the Paris Agreement.

He quotes Dr Lomborg as stating: “Paying $100 trillion for no good is not a good deal”. But Viscount Ridley neglects to tell readers that this quote is not from some analysis, but instead is taken from a television interview with Dr Lomborg on Fox Business in February 2017.

In fact this eye-watering figure is derived from another faulty sum promoted by Dr Lomborg in ‘The Wall Street Journal’, in which he suggests that achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement “will leave the global economy, in rough terms, $1 trillion short every year for the rest of the century”.

Dr Lomborg’s article cites studies by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum and others, but his numbers appear nowhere in their publications and he has never published an explanation for them. Dr Lomborg provided a little further information in his written testimony to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology in December 2015, but, as I pointed out in my letter to the Committee, there is no correspondence between the figures he cites and the contents of the papers upon which he claims they are based.

For instance, Dr Lomborg’s testimony refers to a paper by Brigitte Knopf and co-authors, published in the journal ‘Climate Change Economics’ in 2013, which describes the results of the Energy Modeling Forum 28. The paper describes an assessment using 13 models of the long-term transformation of the European energy system to achieve a reduction in annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 per cent compared with 1990. However, none of the models assess a reduction in emissions of 40 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990, so they cannot provide the basis for Dr Lomborg’s mysterious claim that “the data from the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum suggests hitting that target would reduce the EU’s GDP by 1.6% in 2030, or €287 billion in 2010 money”.

In any case, Dr Lomborg also fails to acknowledge that these modelling studies compare the difference in projected GDP between a fictitious baseline assuming fossil fuel use increases for the rest of the century without causing any economic damage through climate change or local air pollution, and a pathway along which low-carbon energy is introduced to limit global warming but is assumed to be always more expensive than fossil fuels. Such comparisons are of limited academic value, and are certainly not a sensible basis for policy discussions.

Hence it is clear that Dr Lomborg misrepresents the studies by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum and other researchers, and his figures, which were reproduced by Viscount Ridley, are simply not credible.

Next, Viscount Ridley repeats Dr Lomborg’s simplistic argument that policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions should be abandoned in favour of “aggressive research into low-emitting, cost-effective energy technologies, which is the only realistic way to reduce fossil fuel consumption”.

This, of course, ignores the overwhelming conclusions of research showing that a range of policy measures are required to avoid dangerous climate change, including by putting a price on emissions, either through emissions trading or through carbon taxes.

It is worth noting that not all of the errors in Viscount Ridley’s article can be blamed on Dr Lomborg. He ends with the assertion that the UK “remains the only major economy legally bound by statute to reducing carbon dioxide by its 2008 Climate Act”.

His statement is just plain wrong. Many other countries have legislation that sets an emissions reduction target. For instance, France introduced in August 2015 its Energy Transition for Green Growth Law, which requires the setting of carbon budgets, like the UK, towards a goal of cutting annual emissions by 75 per cent by 2050 compared with 1990.

Next time Viscount Ridley decides to write about climate change and the law, he should consult the comprehensive database compiled for 164 countries by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

Since the publication of Viscount Ridley’s article, ‘The Times’ has published a letter from Dr Camilla Toulmin, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, pointing out that Dr Lomborg’s work has been “debunked”. Dr Lomborg has responded with his own letter, expressing complete denial of the flaws in his work. Nevertheless, Viscount Ridley should be embarrassed that his column is based on debunked claims.


Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of economics and Political Science.