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Faking It on Climate Change

Because honest and deep emissions cuts are staggeringly hard to make, achieving carbon neutrality anytime soon is an empty ambition for almost everywhere. But countries continue to make big promises and massage their emissions numbers to give a false sense of progress on combating global warming.

STANFORD – Around the world, ever more countries and regions are promising to stop emitting carbon dioxide sometime in the future. The European Union is winning plaudits from green activists for aiming to be “carbon neutral” by 2050. Cities from Adelaide to Boston to Rio de Janeiro are announcing similar goals, with Copenhagen saying it will get there already in 2025.

Such promises should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. Copenhagen, for example, will likely miss its target, even after spending twice the planned cost of going carbon neutral. In fact, we can learn a lot about the emptiness of these promises – and how governments fiddle with their emissions numbers – by examining the little-known story of one of the first countries that vowed to achieve zero emissions.

This was New Zealand. In 2007, a year before she left office, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark set out her vision for the country to become carbon neutral by 2020. The United Nations duly hailed her as a “Champion of the Earth.” But cutting carbon is not as simple as gaining attention.

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