Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Cooling on Climate Change Policies

Just as the earth continues to cool – global average temperatures have fallen 0.74 degrees Fahrenheit since Al Gore released the film An Inconvenient Truth and forty six US states just recorded the coldest June since records began – the world’s G8 leaders are seeking a basic agreement on climate change.

They are challenged in doing so. First, it is very clear that the Kyoto Accord, due to expire in 2012, is doing little to significantly reduce emissions. While many countries, especially in Europe, have taken measures to increase renewable energy supplies and tax carbon emissions, actual emissions have continued to rise. The recession has had more impact on carbon emissions that policies which seek to reduce them.

Second, there appears to be an en passé between the developed world and the developing world. India and China have been blocking any attempt to impose, through multilateral agreements, specific targets for emissions reductions which apply to them. Their argument, best articulated by India, is that “it is morally wrong for us to agree to reduce when 40 percent of Indians do not have access to electricity." They are seeking a period of development which will permit them to raise the base-line of economic well being for their citizens, compensation for their emissions which they correctly suggest are incurred because the developed world has outsourced their emissions to the developed world and a fund for technology development. This seems to be a position which the developed countries cannot accept.

Third, there are challenges as to whether seeking to fundamentally change the nature of economic activities through carbon taxes and higher energy prices or whether investing in emerging technologies – electric cars, fusion energy, carbon capture and storage, renewable energy – are more likely to produce the outcomes the climate change campaigners are seeking. Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, has strongly indicated that a focus on technology and innovation is more likely to produce results than a focus on economic measures to penalize established economic behaviour. The report he sponsored through The Climate Change Group, Technology for a Low Carbon Future, focuses on this strategy and details the opportunities. His key point: it is almost impossible to change the behaviour of communities after over a hundred years of reliance on carbon. Only real alternative technologies which reduce emissions without people needing to change their behaviour are likely to succeed.

Finally, the politicians are realizing that the evidence base for their decisions are not as strong as many thought they were. Climate change models, on which many of the most depressing predictions about the future are based, are now understood to be very flawed. Observed data – measurements from satellites, actual temperature measures from earth stations, systematic measurements of sea levels and climate – are all indicating that the science is more complex than many of the campaigners, including the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggest. A recent, but suppressed, risk assessment from within the Environmental Protection Agency in the US makes clear that any attempt by the EPA to regulate carbon emissions face legal challenges on the basis of the poor quality of the science on which such regulations may be based.

In December the world’s governments meet in Copenhagen to find agreements which will replace the Kyoto Accord. The G8 summit, now taking place in Italy, was intended to secure a base agreement on which the Copenhagen Accord could be based. This is now looking like a fragile agreement, for the reasons outlined here. While the G8 will release some kind of communiqué – they always do – it will be more about rhetoric than action. The key issue that appears insurmountable at this time is the gap between the developed and developing countries in terms of absolute targets for emissions reductions. Without this, any agreement is simply an agreement to be concerned. With this, some real impacts on emissions may occur. Whatever the agreement, the earth appears to set to continue to cool for another thirty years.

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