TCS Daily

Beyond Bali: Fight Global Warming by Dumping Kyoto

By Pete Geddes - December 18, 2007 12:00 AM

Last week at the UN's global warming meeting in Indonesia, polar bear costumed activists passed out huge pieces of cake. They were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. I wonder if they understand how their obsessive focus on Kyoto as the "only solution" hinders progress?

Kyoto is both a technical and a political failure. (If fully implemented, Kyoto will reduce global temperature by only 0.03 degrees Celsius.) Activists demanded that the U.S. sign Kyoto, but it won't. Why? Because it is a terrible deal. The U.S. would have had to bear up to two-thirds, or more, of the cost of Kyoto, likely more than all other nations combined.

A new approach is required. Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner outline one in a new paper, The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy. The authors believe the threats of climate change are real and that action is warranted.

But they make explicit what every serious observer has known for quite
sometime: "The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of...concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth."

"The politically charged rhetoric within which the climate change question is discussed means that anyone who questions...reduction regarded with suspicion. Unquestioning support for...Kyoto...has become a litmus test for determining who takes the threat of climate change seriously."

"...[Kyoto's] narrow focus on mitigating the emission of greenhouse gases (in which it has failed) has created a taboo on discussing other approaches, in particular, adaptation to climate change. ...For the past fifteen years, it has given the...public an illusion of effective action, tranquillizing political concern. This has been, perhaps, its most damaging legacy." (Read the whole thing on FREE's website.)

The most vulnerable countries are those that depend on agriculture and are at low latitudes. They need to be more resilient to climate change today.

But reducing carbon emissions will not fix poor land-use practices, restore degraded local environments, improve emergency preparedness, or eliminate floods, droughts, or disease outbreaks.

Again Prins and Rayner: "Many...activists assume that slowing greenhouse-gas emissions has logical and ethical priority over adapting to climate impacts.... It is not clear to us that the interests of millions of people in poorer countries who depend on marginal ecosystems are best served by an exclusive preoccupation with mitigation. Indeed, such a narrow focus is likely to be a fatal error."

Reducing global carbon dioxide emissions fast enough and far enough to avoid "dangerous human interference in the climate system" (defined as an increase in temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius) requires an unprecedented transformation of our energy systems. For example, to cut global carbon emissions in half by 2050 requires that, on average, the world economy in the middle of the century will have the same carbon intensity as Switzerland had in 2004.

China and India are making huge investments in energy infrastructure that has a lifetime of 50 years or more. Their fuel of choice is coal. We will not achieve meaningful carbon reductions unless we can develop the technology to capture and safely store emissions from coal-fired power plants. This requires huge R&D investments in this emerging technology.

Another area for investment is to develop storage for wind and solar energy.
Wind and solar are growing energy sources, but their usefulness will be limited to a niche role unless economical, large-scale storage can be developed. This is a basic science question that has proven difficult to crack.

Addressing climate change requires international cooperation for a simple
reason: it is a global problem. No nation is going to sign an agreement whose costs greatly outweigh the benefits. Permanent solutions require the discovery and adoption of new technologies. The next U.S. President should make this explicit. Constructive proposals include transferring efficient energy technologies to developing countries. This will be both cheaper and more effective than continuing to push the Kyoto Protocol.

Pete Geddes is Executive Vice President of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), based in Bozeman, MT.


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