TCS Daily

TCS COP 10 Coverage: Climate Confusion

By Duane D. Freese - December 14, 2004 12:00 AM

BUENOS AIRES -- The current debate over climate change runs the gamut from C to shining C. It's about climate. It's about catastrophe. It's about consensus. It's about carbon. It's about condemnation. Most of all, though, it's about confusion.

There was a lot of confusion Monday at the 10th Annual Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Buenos Aires, particular about data. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change offered two papers up that demonstrate how confused the climate change issue has become.

Now, everybody agrees that there has been some warming over the last century, to the tune of about 0.6 degrees Celsius (about 1.1 degree Fahrenheit). And a consensus of scientists agrees that man's emission of greenhouse gases in that period -- particularly carbon dioxide, which has risen from 0.028% of the atmosphere to 0.037% -- must have had some kind of an impact. The consensus breaks down when you get into a discussion of how much and what kind of an impact.

The most alarmist participants in the debate over climate change believe that anthropogenic emissions have had a dramatic impact and that much worse is to come. So they condemn the Bush administration for not signing onto the Kyoto protocol, which calls for emissions cuts by developed countries of 5 percent of their 1990 levels. The US critics have offered up a host of ideas about how to punish the United States, including boycotts, lawsuits and trade sanctions to force the United States on board.

But there is a problem with concluding that the US needs to be punished, as both of the Pew Center Reports made clear.

First, the Pew Center report Climate Data: Insights and Observations, noted that the U.S. share of emissions, as a percentage of the world total, keeps dropping. Currently, it amounts to less than 21 percent of the total, a drop of about 30 percent from a decade ago. Meanwhile, many developing countries, particular China and India, are dramatically raising their share of carbon emissions.

Punishing the United States while its share of emissions is falling could be imprudent. For one thing, data from the United States, as the Pew report makes clear, is among the most complete in the world. Other nations have huge gaps in their data about emissions and land use and other factors relevant to climate change considerations. Much of the global data available is also out of date. Punishing the United States for keeping excellent records and data would send the message to the developing world, especially giants such as India and China, that the best thing to do to avoid being skewered for cooking the climate is to cook the emissions books.

In addition, though, just getting tough with the United States would undermine doing what the second Pew Center study, International Climate Efforts Beyond 2012: A Survey of Approaches, calls for. And here's where the real confusion begins.

The report essentially recognizes that Kyoto, for all the ink and angst expended on it in the last seven years, won't do much of anything to affect the climate. Only by bringing on board China and India and other developing nations, whose carbon emissions are rising dramatically, could anything much be accomplished in reducing carbon emissions, much less have any impact on climate.

On that score, Pew's Daniel Bodansky observed, "The rejection by the United States (of Kyoto) set off looking for better ways of doing things." It has led to what he called, "a flowering of design proposals" for dealing with carbon emissions. In all, Pew reviewed more than 40 of them.

Pew concluded that any policy proposals need to be environmentally effective, without "leakage" of emissions from one country to another with weaker or no controls -- something the Kyoto protocol encourages. Pew also concluded that any proposals need to be cost effective, reducing emissions at the lowest cost possible (Kyoto would cost the US a staggering $300 billion per year); and that they be equitable, or at least not demonstrably unfair to any nation or region. Any new agreements, Pew concluded, should be assessed by how well they can be scaled up or down or otherwise modified in light of new scientific and economic information. Kyoto doesn't have that mechanism.

On the political front, Pew's research can be summed up in two words -- be realistic. No nation is going to sign on to a treaty that would undermine its economic future.

Which sounds a lot why Bush didn't sign onto Kyoto.

But first things being first, if you want to control carbon emissions around the world, wouldn't the best thing be to get some real good data about them? A decade into the climate confabs, why is it that a private group is still gathering and trying to make sense out of an incomplete data set? No wonder the climate debate is such a confusion.


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