The Pleasure of Climate Change

A Bush administration global warming breakthrough?


Assume dangerous global warming is happening. What to do about it? If accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere— gases produced by burning fossil fuels and other human activities—are to blame for increasing global temperatures, the adage "the first thing you do when you find you're in hole is stop digging" comes to mind. So the obvious idea is, why not stop emitting greenhouse gases? This is the strategy embodied in the Kyoto Protocol which mandates cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases by the industrialized countries that have ratified it.

Under the Protocol, industrialized countries are supposed to cut their emissions in 2012 by about 5 percent below the amount of greenhouse gases they emitted in 1990. However, it is widely recognized that such an emissions cut would reduce projected future warming by 0.02–.028 degrees Centigrade by 2050. This is only a small amount of the warming projected by climate computer models. In order to avoid worst case scenarios, some estimates are that greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by as much as 80 percent by 2050.

The Kyoto Protocol is the first step toward creating an increasingly stringent international system for rationing greenhouse gases. Rationing is costly. One widely cited estimate suggests that implementing the Kyoto Protocol would cost $716 billion, with costs outweighing benefits by 7 to 1. Rationing is also painful—it means denying people something that they want. With regard to the Kyoto Protocol, rationing means denying access to the cheap energy that fuels economic growth and development. Right now, most developing nations are signed onto the Kyoto Protocol because it doesn't require them to do anything at all about their emissions. However, industrialized nations that are now committed to reducing their emissions expect developing countries to agree to cut their emissions during the next round of climate change negotiations, which is slated to begin in Montreal in December. After all, many developing countries are rapidly increasing their greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, China hopes to quadruple the size of its economy by 2020 and doing so means much higher energy use. In fact, by 2020 China will likely emit more greenhouse gases than the United States which is currently the world's largest emitter. In addition, India's economy is growing swiftly and its greenhouse gas emissions are expected to triple by 2020. Will these two rising economic powerhouses slow their development by agreeing to reduce their access to cheap energy under a new more stringent version of Kyoto Protocol style rationing?

The International Energy Agency's (IEA) business-as-usual projection finds the global annual emissions of the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, rising by 60 percent by 2030. Even assuming a strong push for increased energy efficiency, the IEA projects that carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries will be only 16 percent lower than its business-as-usual scenario in 2030.

The Kyoto Protocol inflicts pain by imposing an energy quotas on countries, which leads to increased costs and slower economic growth. Thus it's not surprising that even the European Union, rhetorically the strongest supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, is nevertheless falling far short of meeting its emissions targets.

If pain is not working as enough of an incentive to reduce greenhouse gases, what about pleasure? If not sticks, why not carrots? The new Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate announced last month by the United States, China, India, Australia, Japan, and South Korea may be a step towards developing positive incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse puritans dismissed the proposed Partnership as "Too Much of Nothing," but it does contain the seed of alternative path toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a Zero Emission Technology Treaty.

The ZETT has been proposed at the 9th Conference of the Parties meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2003 by Taishi Sugiyama, a researcher at the Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry in Japan. Sugiyama notes that allocating emissions quotas is an inherently adversarial win-lose process. Such international allocations also lead to distrust as signatories look for loopholes for themselves while suspecting others of cheating. Sugiyama also suggests that the Kyoto Protocol style quotas, because they are unpredictable, offer relatively weak incentives for technological innovation.

Under a ZETT, countries would commit to a long term goal of zero emissions of greenhouse gases from energy production by a certain date. Adopting this simple workable goal would send the right signal to energy producers and consumers over the coming decades. Thus the ZETT would strongly encourage innovation in zero emission technologies. Instead of using sticks to encourage technological progress, a ZETT uses carrots: predictable markets in new no-emissions energy technologies.

The Clean Development and Climate Partnership pledges to "develop, deploy and transfer cleaner, more efficient technologies and to meet national pollution reduction, energy security and climate change concerns." Many of the technologies listed by the Partnership are zero emission. Developing countries such as China and India which will be reluctant to reduce their energy consumption as they grow their economies will favor a treaty that aims at reducing greenhouse gases but that also more securely fosters their long term technological progress. Time will tell if the new Partnership is a first baby step away from looming win-lose fights over the Kyoto Protocol emissions quotas toward a new win-win Zero Emission Technology Treaty.