Global Warming’s Dirty Secret

Last week, the European Union declared that it had practically saved the planet. With European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso claiming that Europe will lead the way on climate change, the EU has promised to cut CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990-levels by 2020. Of course, with the EU already having promised an 8% cut by next year in the Kyoto Protocol, this new target seems slightly less ambitious. Moreover, in continuing the fundamental problems besetting the crippled Kyoto Protocol, the EU has essentially gone and made a worse deal.

Man-made climate change is, of course, real, and constitutes a serious problem. Yet the current cut-emissions-now-before-it-is-too-late mindset neglects the fact that the world has no sensible short-term solutions.

This seems to be why we focus on feel-good approaches like the Kyoto Protocol, whose fundamental problem has always been that it is simultaneously impossibly ambitious, environmentally inconsequential, and inordinately expensive. It required such big reductions that only few countries could live up to it.

Some countries, like the United States and Australia, chose to opt out of its stringent demands; others, like Canada, Japan, and a raft of European states, pay lip service to its requirements but will essentially miss its targets. Yet, even if everyone had participated and continued to stick to Kyoto’s ever more stringent commitments, it would have had virtually no environmental effect. The treaty’s effect on temperature would be immeasurable by mid-century and only postpone warming by five years in 2100. Nonetheless, the cost would have been anything but trivial – an estimated $180 billion per year.

With its high-pitched rhetoric, you would be forgiven for believing that the EU has now single-handedly taken the major step towards solving the problem. Barroso calls the agreement “historic,” Tony Blair extols its “groundbreaking, bold, ambitious targets,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel even ventured that the promises “can avoid what could well be a human calamity.”

But nobody sees fit to reveal the agreement’s dirty little secret: it will do next to no good, and again at very high cost. According to one well-established and peer-reviewed model, the effect of the EU cutting emissions by 20% will postpone warming in 2100 by just two years, yet the cost will be about $90 billion annually. It will be costly, because Europe is a costly place to cut CO2, and it will be inconsequential, because the EU will account for only about 6% of all emissions in the twenty-first century. So the new treaty will be an even less efficient use of our resources than the old Kyoto Protocol.

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It is important to learn from the past. We have often been promised dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions far into the future, only to see the promises vanish when we got there. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the West promised to stabilize emissions, but overshot by 12%. In Kyoto, we were promised a 7% reduction in world emissions, but will probably achieve only 0.4%. Of course, those promises were made by politicians who in all likelihood will no longer be in office when the time comes to fulfil them.

We will not be able to solve global warming over the next decades, but only the next half or full century. We need to find a viable, long-term strategy that is smart, equitable, and doesn’t require inordinate sacrifice for trivial benefits. Fortunately, there is such a strategy: research and development. Investing in R&D of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies would leave future generations able to make serious and yet economically feasible and advantageous cuts. A new global warming treaty should mandate spending 0.05% of GDP on R&D in the future. It would be much cheaper, yet do much more good in the long run.

The EU’s new global warming agreement may help win elections for leaders faced with voters scared by the prospect of climate change. But it will do virtually no good, at high cost, and – as with many other lofty promises from the EU – it will carry a high probability of failure. Let us hope that the rest of the world will keep its cool and propose a better, cheaper, and more effective solution for the future.