The Copenhagen Panic

COPENHAGEN – A sense of panic is setting in among many campaigners for drastic cuts in global carbon emissions. It is becoming obvious that the highly trumpeted meeting set for Copenhagen this December will not deliver a binding international treaty that will make a significant difference to global warming.

After lofty rhetoric and big promises, politicians are starting to play the blame game. Developing countries blame rich countries for the lack of progress. Many blame the United States, which will not have cap-and-trade legislation in place before Copenhagen. The United Nations Secretary General says that “it may be difficult for President Obama to come with strong authority” to reach agreement in Copenhagen. Others blame developing countries – particularly Brazil, China and India – for a reluctance to sign up to binding carbon cuts. Wherever you turn, somebody is being blamed for Copenhagen’s apparent looming failure.

Yet, it has been clear for a considerable time that there is a more fundamental problem: immediate promises of carbon cuts do not work. Seventeen years ago, industrialized nations promised with great fanfare in Rio de Janeiro to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Emissions overshot the target by 12%. In Kyoto, leaders committed to a cut of 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010. The failure to meet that target will likely be even more spectacular, with emissions overshooting by about 25%.

The plan was to convene world leaders in Copenhagen and renew vows to cut carbon while committing to even more ambitious targets. But it is obvious that even a last-minute scramble to salvage some form of agreement will fare no better in actually helping the planet. With such a poor track record, there is a need for soul-searching and openness to other approaches.

A realistic “Plan B” does not mean plotting a second meeting after Copenhagen, as some have suggested. It means re-thinking our strategy. This year, the Copenhagen Consensus Center commissioned research from top climate economists examining feasible ways to respond to global warming. Their research looked at how much we could help the planet by setting different levels of carbon taxes, planting more trees, cutting methane, reducing black soot emissions, adapting to global warming, or focusing on a technological solution to climate change.

The Center convened an expert panel of five of the world’s leading economists, including three Nobel Prize winners, to consider all of the new research and identify the best – and worst – options.

The panel found that expensive, global carbon taxes would be the worst option. This finding was based on a groundbreaking research paper that showed that even a highly efficient global CO2 tax aimed at fulfilling the ambitious goal of keeping temperature increases below 2oC would reduce annual world GDP by a staggering 12.9%, or $40 trillion, in 2100. The total cost would be 50 times that of the avoided climate damage. And if politicians choose less-efficient, less-coordinated cap-and-trade policies, the costs could escalate a further 10 to 100 times.

Instead, the panel recommended focusing investment on research into climate engineering as a short-term response, and on non-carbon-based energy as a longer-term response.

Some proposed climate-engineering technologies – in particular, marine cloud-whitening technology – could be cheap, fast, and effective. (Boats would spray seawater droplets into clouds above the oceans to make them reflect more sunlight back into space, reducing warming). Remarkably, the research suggests that a total of about $9 billion spent implementing marine cloud-whitening technology might be able to offset this entire century’s global warming. Even if one approaches this technology with concerns – as many of us do – we should aim to identify its limitations and risks sooner rather than later.

It appears that climate engineering could buy us some time, and it is time that we need if we are to make a sustainable and smooth shift away from reliance on fossil fuels. Research shows that non-fossil fuel energy sources will – based on today’s availability – get us less than halfway toward a path of stable carbon emissions by 2050, and only a tiny fraction of the way towards stabilization by 2100.

If politicians change course and agree this December to invest significantly more in research and development, we would have a much greater chance of getting this technology to the level where it needs to be. And, because it would be cheaper and easier than carbon cuts, there would be a much greater chance of reaching a genuine, broad-based – and thus successful – international agreement.

Carbon pricing could be used to finance research and development, and to send a price signal to promote the deployment of effective, affordable technology alternatives. Investing about $100 billion annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate-change problem by the end of this century.

While the blame game will not solve global warming, the mounting panic could lead to a positive outcome if it means we re-consider our current approach. If we want real action, we need to pick smarter solutions that will cost less and do more. That would be a result for which every politician would be happy to accept responsibility.