pa2980c.jpg Paul Lachine

Doing Better on Climate Change

When world leaders meet in Copenhagen this December to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, they will embrace more of the same solution: promises of carbon emission reductions that, once again, are unlikely to be fulfilled. Instead, we should commit to making the investments needed so that low-carbon energy sources become a real, competitive alternative to fossil fuels.

Los Angeles – Tackling global warming, we are often told, is the defining task of our age. An army of pundits tells us that we need to cut emissions, and cut them immediately and drastically. But this argument is clearly losing the battle for hearts and minds.

Global warming has now become the lowest-priority policy problem among Americans, according to a new Pew survey. Another Pew survey showed that China, the world's biggest emitter, cares even less than the US about global warming.  Just 24% of Chinese regard global warming as a very serious problem, making China the world's least concerned country. In the UK, an Opinium survey shows that most voters think green taxes are mainly for raising cash rather than the environment, and 7 out of 10 are not willing to pay more in taxes to combat climate change.

At the same time, the proposed solutions for the problem of global warming have been awful. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, politicians from wealthy countries promised to cut emissions by 2000, but did no such thing. Leaders met again in Kyoto in 1997 and promised even stricter carbon cuts by 2010, yet emissions keep increasing, and Kyoto has done virtually nothing to change that.

What is most tragic is that when leaders meet in Copenhagen this December, they will embrace more of the same solution: promises of even more drastic emission reductions that, once again, are unlikely to be fulfilled. Measures that consistently over-promise and under-achieve at vast cost do not win hearts and minds in the best of times. And this is manifestly not the best of times.

Fortunately, we have a much better option, with a much better chance of success: we should make low-carbon energy sources like solar power become a real, competitive alternative to old energy sources, instead of the preserve of rich people who want to feel “greener.”

We should therefore invest on an effective scale in inventing new technology. Contrary to what one would imagine, the Kyoto Protocol has not prompted this research. Indeed, research investment has plummeted since the 1980’s and has actually not increased since, even among Kyoto-participating countries.

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Investing heavily in research and development of low-carbon energy, solar power, or other new technologies would become cheaper than fossil fuels much more quickly. Economic estimates show that for every $1 spent, we would do $16 worth of good.

Every country should agree to spend 0.05% of its GDP on low-carbon energy R&D. The total global cost would be 15 times higher than current spending on alternative energy research, yet six times lower than the cost of Kyoto. An agreement of this nature could be the new Kyoto treaty for the world – the principal difference being that this protocol would actually make a difference and stand a good chance of global acceptance.

Why not do both: invest in R&D, but still promise to cut carbon emissions now?

Kyoto-style policies can only ever be an expensive distraction from the real business of weaning us off fossil fuels. There are two fundamental reasons why a focus on reducing carbon emissions is the wrong response to global warming.

First, using fossil fuels remains the only way out of poverty for developing countries. Coal provides half of the world’s energy. In China and India, it accounts for about 80% of power generation, and is helping Chinese and Indian laborers enjoy a quality of life that their parents could barely imagine. Capping emissions means, effectively, ending this success story for hundreds of millions of people. There is no “green” energy source that is affordable enough to replace coal in the near future. Instead, our upsized research will make green energy cheaper than fossil fuels by mid-century.

Second, immediate carbon cuts are expensive – and the cost significantly outweighs the benefits. If the Kyoto agreement had been fully implemented throughout this century, it would have cut temperatures only by an insignificant 0.2°C (0.3°F), at a cost of $180 billion every year. In economic terms, Kyoto only does about 30 cents worth of good for each dollar spent.

And deeper emissions cuts like those proposed by the European Union – 20% below 1990 levels within 12 years – would reduce global temperatures by only one-sixtieth of one degree Celsius (one-thirtieth of one degree Fahrenheit) by 2100, at a cost of $10 trillion. For every dollar spent, we would do just four cents worth of good.

The saddest thing about the global warming debate is that nearly all of the key protagonists – politicians, campaigners, and pundits – already know that the old-style agreement that is on the table for Copenhagen this December will have a negligible effect on temperatures.

Unless we change direction and make our actions realistic and achievable, it is already clear that the declarations of “success” in Copenhagen this December will be meaningless. We will make promises. We will not keep them. And we will waste another decade. Instead, we must challenge the orthodoxy of Kyoto. We can do better.