Science & Technology

Climate Change Confabs

Carbon limits, technological breakthroughs, or both?


Climate change is at the top of the international agenda this week. On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon convened a one-day summit of 150 nations in New York on the issue. The U.N. conference was attended by more than 80 heads of state and government, making it the largest meeting ever of world leaders on climate change. Ban told the conferees, "The message is quite simple. We know enough to act. If we don't act now, the impact of climate change will be devastating."

On Thursday and Friday, President George W. Bush will convene a meeting in Washington of representatives from the sixteen countries that emit the most greenhouse gases, including large developing countries like China, India, and Brazil, to discuss steps to address climate change. This is potentially significant because developing countries have no current obligations under the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Both meetings aim to influence the agenda for the climate change negotiations in Bali, Indonesia this coming December at the thirteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-13) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The negotiations at the COP-13 are about what, if any, new international regulatory scheme for controlling greenhouse gas emissions will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which lapses in 2012. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 36 industrial nation signatories committed to cutting their GHG emissions by an average of five percent below the level they emitted in 1990. The United States and Australia refused to sign onto the treaty.

How are the Kyoto signatories—chiefly the European Union (EU), Japan and Canada—doing at meeting their emissions targets? Emissions from the EU-15 have dropped by 1.5 percent since 1990, which is still well above their agreed target reduction of 8 percent below what they emitted in 1990. A report last year from the European Environment Agency projected that the EU-15 would not likely reach their 2012 Kyoto Protocol emissions target unless they adopt more stringent policies. Nevertheless, the EU jauntily declared that it would cut its GHG emissions by 20 percent below its 1990 level by 2020.

Canada committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 6 percent below its 1990 level, but as of 2004, Canada emitted 27 percent more GHG than it did in 1990. Japan is supposed to cut its GHG emissions by 6 percent, but recent projections suggest that it may emit 2 percent more than it did in 1990. For comparison, U.S. GHG emissions are up over 16 percent of what they were in 1990.

At the U.N. meeting on Monday, the EU, Canada, and Japan all came out in favor of a binding target of cutting GHG emissions by 50 percent below their 1990 levels by 2050. The Bush Administration is against binding reductions targets, preferring to focus on research to develop clean energy technologies that do not emit GHGs—e.g., nuclear, wind, solar and carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Carbon sequestration means burying carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels by injecting it into underground reservoirs. At the U.N. climate confab, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declared, "Ultimately, we must develop and bring to market new energy technologies that transcend the current system of fossil fuels, carbon emissions and economic activity. Put simply, the world needs a technological revolution."

But how to spark an energy tech revolution? If replacing fossil fuels was easy and cheap to do, then clever inventors would already have done it. The fact is that while the costs of alternative energy sources have been falling they remain more expensive and cumbersome than fossil fuels for most uses. In addition, federal government spending on energy research and demonstration projects does not have a great track record. Consider the case of the North Dakota synfuels plant, built in response to the oil "crises" of the 1970s and backed by federal loan guarantees. The plant was once the largest construction project in the U.S. and cost $2.1 billion ($4.1 billion in today's dollars) to build. In 1984, the price of natural gas plummeted and the plant went into bankruptcy. It was sold in 1988 to a local electric cooperative for $85 million; a little over 4 cents on the dollar. That $2.1 billion would have grown to about $6.5 billion at 5 percent compounded interest since 1984.

Relying on the wisdom of federal bureaucrats to pick the right research projects as a way to jumpstart an energy revolution is a chancy strategy. The fact that carbon-emitting fuels are so cheap that it doesn't pay for researchers to develop low carbon energy sources suggests a solution—make carbon more expensive. There are two ways to do this: either create a carbon market or impose a carbon tax. Both strategies have advantages and disadvantages, but by making fossil fuels more expensive, researchers would have a strong incentive to find and commercialize low carbon technology breakthroughs.

At the U.N. summit on Monday, Secretary-General Ban declared, "The scientists have very clearly outlined the severity of the problem." Certainly the evidence that man-made climate change is happening continues to mount. Last week, researchers reported that the fabled Northwest Passage opened as Arctic sea ice reached a new summer low. One of the predicted effects of man-made climate change is that as GHGs accumulate, the atmosphere will warm, which in turn means that it holds more water vapor and, as the primary GHG, adds to warming in a positive feedback effect that further boosts temperatures. A new study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that since 1988, water vapor has increased in the atmosphere and concludes that the increase is "primarily due to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases."

Although a consensus about man-made global warming has emerged, science is rarely completely settled. Climate researchers, especially climate modelers, are digesting the results of several intriguing new empirical studies. First, a study soon to appear in the Geophysical Research Letters by Stephen Schwartz, a senior atmospheric scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, suggests that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in an average global temperature rise of 1.1 degrees Celsius (plus or minus 0.5 degrees Celsius). This is considerably lower than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) best estimate of 3 degrees Celsius. Of course, proponents of dangerous climate change are challenging Schwartz's results.

Second, in August a team led by Scripps Institute for Oceanography Center for Clouds researcher Veerabhadran Ramanathan reported in the journal Nature that soot may boost global warming by 50 percent, at least on a regional basis. The study suggests that atmospheric heating caused by greenhouse gases and soot together is responsible for the melting of Himalayan glaciers over the past half century. Soot may also explain one-third or more of the Arctic warming primarily attributed to greenhouse gases, according to a study published last June in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

And third, MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen proposed in 2001 that the earth might have what he called an "adaptive infrared iris" operating over the tropical oceans. Lindzen's team suggested that they had preliminary evidence that as GHGs accumulated and boosted the temperature of the tropical oceans that a negative feedback would kick in to lower temperatures. To make a long story short, Lindzen's team believed they had found evidence that as the tropical atmosphere warms up, high-altitude ice clouds that tend to trap heat dissipated and allowed heat to escape into space. At the same time, low level rain clouds that cool temperatures by reflecting sunlight increased. Thus, the earth has a self-regulating thermostat that prevents significant temperature increases due to accumulating GHGs. Other researchers questioned Lindzen's results, arguing that they could find no evidence that tropical clouds behaved the way Lindzen hypothesized.

A study in Geophysical Research Letters published in August by researchers at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory using satellite data found evidence that Lindzen might be right. Tropical clouds may act in such a way as to cool down the planet.

The balance of the scientific evidence is that humanity is increasing the earth's temperature by loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, especially with carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. But clearly more scientific research and debate needs to be done to figure out if the new findings cited above will pan out and will necessitate incorporation into computer climate models. After all, the results of those models are now driving public policy discussions at the U.N., Washington, and, later this year, Bali.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.