The Climate BFG

The myopia of climate metrics

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

Enough with the Big Fancy Goals!

Here’s the scenario: I want to run a marathon. Do I launch my training regime by running 42.2 kilometres on day one? Of course not. I drink copious amounts of orange Gatorade (the best kind), I make increasingly fussy horn-heavy running mixes, I dawdle and futz and delay and double-knot my laces thrice. And then I run a few miles, tacking on a bit more each time I set out to train. I set a decently ambitious pace goal, and if I find I’m training in such a way as to surpass it, I inch said goal up, pushing myself to do better. (Better being subjective. I am the world’s slowest runner, a distinction I take unironic pride in.)

The problem with equating a marathon training regimen to climate targets lies in the failure risks: Missing my goals means a slightly more embarrassing race time, missing the planet’s emissions goals means an uninhabitable earth. But while the outcomes vary, the metaphor’s core is strong. Would you obsess over whether to run a marathon or an ultramarathon when you haven’t yet run a 5K? No! You’d just jump out the door and start sprinting for all get out!

Which is why I favour: Set a goal, improve upon it, set a tougher goal. And given the fact that we have not much time at all, do this very quickly, over and over again! Easy, right?

It’s why I lose my patience a bit with endless arguments about percentage targets. What matters is the strength of your conviction, your accountability to the goal, and what you do in the increments. So while I’d certainly welcome a stronger emissions reductions goal from Canada with regards to improving upon our Paris commitments, what matters more is what we can actually do, and whether we’re going to do it

Based on our track record of not having ever met a climate goal, and climate accountability legislation that is currently treading water in the House, starting with a goal that is scary but not impossible, and then strengthening it forcibly as we close in on it doesn’t seem like a bad play. We’ve already inched up our Paris commitments once, who's to say we can’t do it again? And again?

The opposite view was put forth in a Hill Times editorial this week. They write:

When it comes to commitments to combat climate change, the more ambitious, the better. 

After all, that old nugget of positive thinking, “shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” only works if you’re overshooting.

Can I agree with that too, minus the dorm room poetry? 

Stateside, I’m finding good company in the words of David Roberts, who writes about Biden’s Paris commitments by saying that, “policy, not aspirations, will determine Biden’s legacy on climate change.” He goes on to write:

I know that targets and pledges serve an important signaling function. They communicate intentions within countries — when they come from states, provinces, cities, or companies — and between them, in the context of international climate relations. They “send a message.” Sometimes, a particularly bold target or pledge will even go so far as to “change the conversation.”

But messages and conversations do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Policies reduce emissions, by driving changes in behavior, and targets and pledges are not policies. They are vouchers, promises to pass policies in the future. They are wrapping paper. It’s the policy inside that matters.

But also, these BIG FANCY GOALS signal your policy intent, and once a goal is set, it’s up to fresh policy to close those emissions reductions gaps. Or, to go with Roberts’ analogy, excessively beautiful wrapping paper might inspire you to make sure there’s a really good gift inside, right? Imagine tearing the gold-foiled 50%-Paris-reductions paper off a gift box only to find a lump of coal?

Behavioural science tells us to break daunting goals into discrete chunks so as not to be overwhelmed by the larger goal. The climate corollary for this is a carbon budget — we need to be breaking down our remaining emissions reductions into small slivers of time and aiming to make the biggest strides in the beginning. Rather like race training, the big gains need to be made at the start, where the low-hanging fruit lets you pace up on the quick. It’s towards the tail end of training that gains are measured in seconds. And it’s towards the tail end of our carbon reduction timeline that we’ll find the hardest emissions to abate, and may need to avail ourselves of some of that scary carbon removal tech.

Is all of this a long-winded way of saying targets schmargets? No. We need them. Now more than ever. I just worry that in the pickle fight over which percentage is most admirable or right or true, we lose sight of the larger picture. Which is that we need STRONG, IMMEDIATE, REDUCTIONS now to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. And that we need to DO the things we plan to do, on time, and preferably yesterday. So I guess the takeaway is: As long as the goal is within the range of reasonable, let’s not waste time on it. We have soooo many other things to do! Like make a really good running mix. BRB.

This Week:

How do you set goals? What do you thing of this latest round of Climate BFGs? LMK!

Last week:

Visualizing emissions. My lovely colleague sent me this excellent graphic that helps visualize emissions. It perfect.

People dancing

Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

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