previous ecostory 53/2008 next
Why obstacles to a deal on climate are mountainous
home | climate | energy | sustainability | water | back
Martin Wolf writes (Financial Times 8 July 2008, p.11)
    "Something has changed in the debate on man-made climate change: the US is engaged. But its engagement – or at least the engagement of President George W. Bush – is neither enthusiastic nor unconditional. In particular, at discussions among the heads of governments of the Group of Eight leading countries in Japan, Mr Bush stressed that China and India had to participate. In this, he was right: it will be impossible to tackle the problem without the participation of leading emerging countries. The question is on what terms they do so.

    "This is to ignore the debate on whether man-made climate change is either plausible or correctly assessed. I find the arguments sufficiently cogent to justify action. Above all, I find persuasive the argument of Professor Martin Weitzman of Harvard University that it is worth paying a great deal to eliminate the risk of catastrophe.* Those who reject such views need read no further.
ecoglobe> If a risk must be "eliminated" the precautionary principle must be applied in its full and entire sense. This would mean applying the solutions that we have now and not waiting for uncertain and/or yet-to be-invested technologies of the future. We can and must reduce now by contracting our economic output of non-essential products, reducing speeds, relocalisation, i.e. reducing transportation of goods and people, and banning many useless and harmful products and activities. Such action would not eliminate risk but it would represent major steps in the right direction towards sustainability.
    "Professor Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics, author of the UK government’s 2006 report on climate change, has analysed the issues in an interesting recent paper.** He starts from a few simple propositions: first, the concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere is now 430 parts per million and rising at the rate of two parts per million a year; second, the aim should be to stabilise concentrations at between 450 and 500 parts per million; finally, to achieve this, global emissions of greenhouse gas equivalents must peak in the next 15 years and fall by at least 50 per cent, relative to 1990 levels (about 90 per cent of 2005 levels), by 2050, when global average emissions per head must be as low as two tonnes per head.
ecoglobe> Our no-risk calculation: . Mr. David Martin (Greenpeace Canada): Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
You should have before you a submission from Greenpeace entitled “Targeting Climate Change in Canada”. I would also like to note that you have received a letter dated January 22, with recommended amendments to Bill C-30 from eight different executive directors of environmental groups. Our presentation this evening addresses climate change issues, but Greenpeace would like to adopt those submissions that are in those amendments.
As drafted, Canada's Clean Air Act targets no greenhouse gas reductions before 2020, and only sets a distant and, in our opinion, inadequate target for reductions by 2050. The notice of intent calls for emission reductions of between 45% and 65% from 2003 levels by 2050. Just to put that in perspective, Canadian greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 were 754 megatonnes. That means that by those targets, we would come down to between 264 and 415 megatonnes in 2050.
Reductions of emissions are usually calculated, as you know, against a baseline of 1990. As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, Canada committed to reduce emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012, so our target for 2012 is in fact 563 megatonnes. In order to prevent dangerous climate change, Greenpeace calls on Canada and other industrial nations to meet their Kyoto commitments as the first step, and then to target further deep reductions of emissions relative to 1990 levels: 30% by 2020, and 80% by 2050.
Why these levels? These levels are science-based targets designed to prevent, in the words of the Kyoto Protocol, “dangerous climate change” by keeping the global average temperature increase as far below two degrees Celsius as possible.
In terms of the actual levels of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere, pre-industrial levels were at 280 parts per million, and the current level is up to 430 parts per million. The Stern review concluded that the greenhouse gas concentration should be limited to a range of 450 to 550 parts per million. The environmental community thinks we should be targeting it at the lower end of that range. Just so you understand the implications, it's thought that the planet could reach 550 parts per million as early as 2035. At that concentration, there's a 77% to 99% chance that the average temperature increase will exceed two degrees Celsius. It's widely accepted that temperature increases of more than two degrees Celsius will dramatically increase the risk of serious and irreversible climate change impacts.
The longer we delay those emission cuts, the faster they're going to have to be reduced. That's just simple mathematics. We have only a short window of opportunity, so it's vitally important to start reducing immediately.
With regard to intensity-based targets, the notice of intent states that “the Government intends to adopt a target-setting approach based on emissions intensity”. Emissions intensity is a measure of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of economic activity. Unfortunately, these intensity-based targets can be used to misrepresent progress—or the lack of progress—that's being made. Canada's greenhouse gas intensity measured in megatonnes per billion dollars of gross domestic product has actually decreased—that is, improved—14% between 1990 and 2004. However, this improvement has occurred largely spontaneously as a result of energy efficiency improvements, at the same time that the absolute levels of greenhouse gas emissions have increased 27%. Therefore, Greenpeace rejects the use of intensity-based targets and supports the use of absolute targets for greenhouse reductions.
    "Historic trends and current emission levels indicate how big a change from “business as usual” these goals are: two tonnes per head is 10 per cent of recent US levels and half China’s. Yet, argues Prof Stern, this must happen if one takes the risks seriously. Worse, the longer the world waits, the bigger reductions must be, because the gases stay up for centuries.

    How is this to be achieved? Any set of policies has to be effective, efficient and equitable. Let us examine each of these criteria in turn.

    To be effective, the policy will need to reduce emissions sharply. The implication is that every activity and virtually every country will be affected. Developing countries, which will contain close to 90 per cent of the world’s population and generate the bulk of the world’s emissions by 2050, must make a substantial contribution. On this, Mr Bush is correct. The long-run world average of two tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per head is so low that no country can be allowed to go much above it.

    The sectoral implications are also dramatic: big efforts will be needed to halt deforestation, for example, which currently contributes some 17 per cent of man-made emissions; electricity generation will need to be carbon-free by 2050; and the global vehicle fleet, projected by the International Monetary Fund to increase by 2.3bn vehicles between now and 2050, must become largely carbon-free, as well.

    Efficiency is as easy to define as it is hard to accept: the marginal cost of reducing emissions should be the same in all activities everywhere. The price of carbon – whether set by a “cap and trade” scheme on emissions, a carbon tax or a hybrid – should also be the same everywhere. That China is now the world’s single largest emitter shows how vital it is for emissions to be priced there, too.

    China’s emissions per unit of gross domestic product (at purchasing power parity) are double those of the US and three times those of Japan. So far as possible, therefore, the best technology must be used everywhere. Yet the existing set of low-emitting technologies is not fully diffused across the globe. Achieving this could, argues Prof Stern, reduce emissions by between five and 10 gigatonnes per annum by 2030 (10-20 per cent of 2005 emissions). Big efforts must also be made to develop and scale up nearly commercial technologies and create new ones. The fact that all the needed technologies do not yet exist makes estimates of what it will cost to achieve the targets an educated guess. This includes Prof Stern’s figure of 1 per cent of global gross output.

    Yet the most intractable challenge of all is equity. Emissions have to be reduced everywhere, but the cost of doing so need not be borne by everyone. There are three powerful arguments why costs should be borne by high-income countries: first, they created the current problem; second, they still emit far more per head; and, third, they can afford it. Three-fifths of the stock of man-made greenhouse gases was put up by the high-income countries. In 2004, US emissions per head were also five times those of China and 17 times those of India.

    So how is it possible to ensure the same price for carbon everywhere, while imposing the costs on rich countries? One answer is by paying for reductions in emissions in developing countries, while not penalising them for failure to meet targets. Such a scheme exists: the “clean development mechanism”. Its principle is reasonable. The difficulty is defining and measuring benchmarks, monitoring achievement and covering entire economies.

    Yet this, however difficult, is the way Prof Stern suggests the world should go up to 2020, when developing countries should also adopt limits. He suggests, specifically, that the current mechanism needs to move from a projects-based one to a “wholesale mechanism, perhaps based on sector-specific efficiency targets or on technology benchmarks”. Can this be made workable in China, India and other emerging economies? To be honest, I doubt it. But it seems to be the only way forward. Moreover, persuading developing countries to accept binding limits even in 2020 is bound to be hard, given the gross inequity of the starting point.

    The G8 leaders claim to have made a breakthrough. This is nonsense. They have not begun to reach all the needed agreements, particularly with the developing countries. They have merely taken a first step among themselves. They have not even put in place policies to achieve the necessary reductions in emissions in their own countries, of between 75 and 90 per cent by 2050.

    This is much the most complex collective action problem in human history. Solving it requires concerted action among unequal participants over at least a century. Yet the right thing to do is to try. If not us, who? And if not now, when?

    * On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change,
    ** Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change,

Helmut Lubbers
ecological psychologist and
environmental scientist @ 22.12.2007

Also see The Bali Communiqué
Environmental developments:
  • The day of "Peak oil", i.e. the highest daily amount of oil extracted, is approaching. It is expected within one to twenty years. Thereafter petroleum will be used for prioritary applications. (compare fossil energy developments)
    Your comment or question
  • home | a-z site map | write to writing for change... halt  | ecostory | feedback
    zurück - retour - backback ecoglobe since 1997 top article