What will come of the array of ambitious (and not-so-ambitious) targets announced by world leaders at President Joe Biden’s climate summit?
It’s tempting to think, “Not enough.” Talk is cheap; actions are expensive. About a third of all the greenhouse emissions from human activities in history have happened since 1997, when world leaders adopted the Kyoto Protocol with an ambition of limiting such pollution. In the words of activist Greta Thunberg to a U.S. congressional committee Thursday, “We’re not so naive that we believe that things will be solved by countries and companies making vague, distant, insufficient targets.”
Vague, distant and insufficient aren’t the only way of setting targets, though. Indeed, there’s ample evidence that the opposite type of goal-setting — specific, time-constrained and challenging — is remarkably effective.
The bigger risk isn’t that world leaders fall short of the objectives they’ve set. Instead, it’s that they limit the scope of their ambitions out of a misplaced sense of self-doubt.
One way of expressing that idea is the slogan that leftist students scrawled on a Parisian wall during protests in May 1968: “Soyez realistes, demandez l’impossible,” or “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” The more influential version was laid out at almost exactly the same time in a psychological paper by an American devotee of Ayn Rand, Edwin A. Locke, under the dry title, “Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives.”
Locke’s key insight was that difficult targets don’t make achievement less likely. Indeed, in contrast to earlier theorists who had concluded that achievement drops off when people are over-ambitious, Locke argued that “the harder the goal, the higher the performance.” Except in rare cases where an aim is physically impossible or motivation is weak, people are more likely to hit their goals when they push them to the limits than when they rein in for fear of failure.
That theory has spawned an entire literature in the field of management — but it has less-discussed relevance to public policy, too. After all, setting goals that are specific, time-constrained and challenging is precisely what world leaders have been doing in relation to climate.
It’s not always easy for politicians to make these sorts of credible commitments. Despite Biden’s promise to cut emissions in 2030 to half of 2005’s levels, the U.S. executive branch is notoriously constrained in its ability to bring about change.
Under the Obama administration, a bill to set up an emissions trading system similar to the one currently generating record carbon prices in Europe was passed by the House of Representatives but never brought to the Senate. The Clean Power Plan — an attempt to regulate carbon pollution from electricity generation without going through Congress — was blocked in a 5-4 Supreme Court vote.
There are similar institutional blocks in China, which overtook the U.S. as the world’s biggest emitter in 2005. For all the clarity of President Xi Jinping’s promise to peak emissions this decade and reduce them to net zero by 2060, it’s not hard to discern the muffled sound of a struggle with lower-level provincial officials who remain addicted to a carbon-intensive development model.
In January, an audit body took the country’s National Energy Administration to task for failing to restrain planet-breaking coal power development plans. The crabwise progress of Xi’s own commitments — finally agreeing to a formal reduction in coal consumption last week after months of soft-pedaling the renewables build-out needed to make it happen — is another clue to the surprising limits on his personal power in this arena.
Still, the history of climate agreements suggests the world is ultimately more amenable to human goal-setting than we like to think. If the Kyoto Protocol was a failure, it wasn’t because the 37 nations involved ignored their promises en masse. Indeed, they far outstripped their commitment to a modest 5 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels, reaching a 22.6 percent drop by 2012.
The bigger problem was that numerous countries — including many of the world’s biggest emitters — didn’t sign up in the first place.
The broader range of targets now being set suggests a more promising future. They have intrinsic value, too, because a declared ambition by its nature increases the scope of what’s possible.
Were it not for the first wave of feed-in tariffs and renewable portfolio standards in the early 2000s encouraging more wind and solar generation — policies that seemed unlikely to achieve much at the time — it’s probable we’d never have seen the headlong drops in prices that are now causing renewables to drive fossil fuels from the power sector. If a kooky tech investor in 2006 hadn’t cast his small-volume electric sportscar as the first step in destroying the “mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy,” would Volkswagen AG now be planning to stop developing petrol and diesel cars 20 years later?
The boldest ambitions aren’t always achieved, and the future of decarbonization may be as littered with broken promises and missed commitments as the past has been. Still, the only goal you’re certain to miss is the one you never shoot for.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.