Beyond Copenhagen: How it can succeed by failing

Should we be concerned that the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference is not going to produce a concrete plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? Lots of people clearly are.
Carbon emissions fuelling the atmosphere are the top topic in Copenhagen.
Carbon emissions fuelling the atmosphere are the top topic in Copenhagen.

Should we be concerned that the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference is not going to produce a concrete plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? Lots of people clearly are.

Indeed, while activists prepare to unfurl protest banners, politicians are scrambling for a face-saving way to declare the summit a success. They should all save their energy.

The failure of the summit may be a blessing in disguise, because when it comes to dealing with climate change, the last thing we need right now is yet another empty agreement and yet more moral posturing.

For years, we have been spinning our wheels on what I call the Rio-Kyoto-Copenhagen road to nowhere, slavishly following the notion — first endorsed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and then extended in Kyoto 13 years later — that the only way to stop global warming is by means of draconian reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

All we have to show for this devotion is a continuing series of unmet targets, along with a startling increase in the number of people who no longer think climate change is worth worrying about.

Why has this approach led us to this dead end? Well, to begin with, it proposes a solution that costs more than the problem it’s meant to solve. It is estimated that if we don’t do anything about global warming, its damaging effects will cost the world close to $3 trillion a year by the end of this century.

In an effort to avert this “catastrophe,” the industrialized nations have proposed a plan that would mandate cuts in carbon emissions in order to keep average global temperatures from rising any higher than 2°C above preindustrial levels.

This is an enormously ambitious goal, but many experts agree it could make a real difference. The problem is that the cure may be worse than the disease.

In a paper for the Copenhagen Consensus Center, climate economist Richard Tol, a lead author for the U.N. climate panel, determined that to cut carbon emissions enough to meet the 2° goal, the leading industrial nations would have to slap a huge tax on carbon-emitting fuels — one that by the end of the century would reach something on the order of $4,000 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, or $35 per gallon of gas ($9 per liter).

According to Tol, the impact of a tax hike of this magnitude could reduce world GDP 12.9% in 2100 — the equivalent of $40 trillion a year. In other words, to save ourselves $3 trillion a year, we’d be giving up $40 trillion a year. No wonder we’re not getting anywhere.

The problem isn’t only a matter of economics. There’s also technology to consider. On figures from the International Energy Agency, it is clear that to cut carbon emissions by three-quarters over the rest of this century while maintaining reasonable economic growth, we would have to develop alternative-energy sources capable of providing roughly 20 times the energy they do now.

To be sure, there are plenty of promising alternative technologies on the horizon. But for all the optimistic talk of sustainable, non-carbon-emitting energy sources, none of them are remotely ready to shoulder such a load.

The fact is, about half the world’s electricity comes from coal. For emerging economies like those of China and India, the proportion is closer to 80%. Indeed, burning carbon-emitting fuels is the only way for such countries to rise out of poverty.

No wonder so many of them have so much trouble with the largely Western plea that we all go on a carbon diet. It’s simply not in their interest to do so. It’s time to stop trying to put the cart before the horse.

Instead of trying to make fossil fuels more expensive, we should focus on making alternative energy cheaper. The cost of fully implementing the Kyoto Protocol (in terms of lost economic growth) has been estimated at roughly $180 billion a year.

For just a little more than half that amount, we could fund a fiftyfold increase in spending on R&D for the kind of game-changing technological breakthroughs — like smart grids, ultra-efficient batteries or even cheap, manageable fusion — we will need to end our addiction to fossil fuels.

Such a commitment would resolve many of today’s political challenges. Developing nations would be much more likely to embrace a positive path of innovation than a punitive one that handicaps their ability to grow their economies.

As things stand now, our political leaders continue to offer up little more than fanciful promises that either mean nothing or have little or no chance of being fulfilled.

So let’s not mourn the failure of the Copenhagen summit. If we are serious about tackling global warming, we need action that actually does good — as opposed to empty agreements and moral posturing that merely make us feel good.

Lomborg, the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is the author of Cool It and The Skeptical Environmentalist


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