What is Ducky’s take on national climate actions?

National climate actions are developed to reach direct emission goals. Perhaps surprisingly, this methodology can work against the intended purpose. What can one do instead?

How are national climate action plans typically developed?

Under the current scheme dictated by the Paris Agreement, national level climate actions are calculated with something like a Scope 1 or 2 perspective (to make a parallel with company GHG reporting). This means that only emissions that occur directly within a country's borders are accounted for. In affluent countries with little industry, such as most of Western Europe, the emissions of the goods and services imported by the country are often much higher than that produced within the country.

Using the current accounting system, it is considered the rational choice in e.g. Norway to invest in costly electrification with uncertain effect. To take some examples from the Norwegian Environmental Agency report Klimakur 2030, initiatives cost in the range of 500 to 7 500 NOK per tonne of CO2e emissions avoided. Such calculations are based on an emission factor for electricity of 0 g CO2e per kWh, while omitting imported goods and services. This is not an accurate representation of reality, and the cost efficiency numbers provided cannot be used to judge climate policy.

To be clear,  we can’t document the effect on global emissions from such initiatives, since indirect (Scope 3) effects are not included.  Following from the selected emission factor, simple energy efficiency measures - that could save money instead of costing money - aren’t even considered. 

What is a better way to calculate the effect of climate actions?

At Ducky, we believe that emission reduction initiatives can only be objectively compared within a full life-cycle scope (Scope 3). This accounting method attributes the emissions of products and services to their end user, as opposed to the person or entity who produces the emissions. The effect on direct emissions within a country, although important to fulfill international commitments, is secondary.

We have calculated the full-scope effect of personal climate actions for our Challenge tool. In addition, we see some important systemic consequences with this way of thinking. We believe that countries should set national footprint targets, tracking consumption-based emissions instead of direct emissions.

What do we know about the effect of proposed national actions in Norway?

When we use Scope 3 calculations, the proposed Norwegian electrification initiatives are not so promising

Not all electrification initiatives are worthwhile in the Scope 3 perspective (especially using a European energy mix like we suggest. Read more about Ducky’s take on electricity factors). This view can help give a more realistic basis for long-term national investments. 

At Ducky, we believe that investments in electrification go hand-in-hand with investments in sustainable electricity production and grid interconnectivity. We should not assume that a region which currently has a surplus (or deficit) of sustainable electricity will remain insulated from the European market. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the European electricity mix has dropped significantly over the last two decades, and will continue to drop as more countries make the switch to renewable energy.

Using a European electricity mix - and calculating energy footprints with a full life-cycle scope - will help limit over-investments in inefficient direct emission reduction initiatives. We address two large issues:

  1. The theoretical benefit of electrification initiatives directly correlates with the chosen electricity emission factor. As we see in our article about GHG reporting (Scroll down to Scope 2), there are several ways to define an emission factor of 0 g CO2e per kWh, if one so wishes.  The risk is therefore high that initiatives are implemented on weak grounds. For instance, an electricity factor of 0 g CO2e per kWh could lead a municipality to incentivise electric car use over boosting public transport access, a choice that could lead to higher emissions in the short term with a more realistic electricity mix.
  2. International agreements incentivize the reduction of direct emissions within national borders, and put little emphasis on the reduction of indirect emissions. Cost-benefit calculations are set up to optimize direct emission reduction with little concern for indirect effects. In this context, a rich country could spend huge sums getting their direct emissions close to zero, while importing increasing amounts of goods and services. The best way for this country to “reduce emissions” would be to just get rid of any local industry and import cheap goods instead. Global emissions would not go down even if national emissions did.

Is it a good idea to electrify the oil and gas sector?

According to a 2015 paper by SSB on CO2-emissions from Norwegian oil and gas extraction, about 90% of the lifetime emissions from oil and gas come from the use phase. Even an enormous 50% improvement of natural gas production processes would only reduce life cycle emissions from e.g. 500 g CO2e per kWh to 475 g CO2e per kWh. The electricity spent on these processes might instead have been exported to Europe, replacing coal power with emissions of almost 1000 g CO2e per kWh. It is therefore no surprise that the Norwegian Government's own Energimeldingen (Meld. St. 36 (2020–2021) estimates the effect of electrification on emissions, in the short and long term, at European and global level, as uncertain.

Is it a good idea to switch to electric cars?

On a more positive note, an EEA report from 2018 confirms that electric cars are more sustainable than fossil cars - even using the European electricity mix and accounting for the full life cycle of the vehicle. The argument for electric cars is thus very robust.