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.