Kyoto is dead—and that’s a good thing. In its place, we need massive global investment in new clean energy technology.
The most dramatic moment during last December’s climate change talks in Bali came when delegates roundly booed U.S. negotiator Paula Dobriansky for rejecting treaty language that she said required too little of poor nations. The roar of disapproval from the delegates captured not only seven years of global frustration with the Bush Administration’s global-warming obstructionism, but also with American unilateralism more broadly.
Shortly thereafter, negotiators announced a face-saving compromise: An agreement would be negotiated in 2009, implicitly timed for a new U.S. administration, one presumably more supportive of global limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But the agreement also allowed the participants to avoid facing the painful, but true, fact that these countries had made no headway whatsoever in establishing binding emissions-reduction targets, most especially China and India, which will produce the bulk of the increase in emissions over the next century.
This last-minute arrangement also allowed those developed nations that had agreed to binding emissions targets to avoid confronting their own failures. Between 2000 and 2005, European emissions grew twice as fast as America’s. Emissions in Canada grew a whopping five times faster. Since 1990, Germany and Britain reduced their emissions, but they did so for prior reasons having nothing to do with global warming: Margaret Thatcher broke the coal miners’ union in the early 1980s, moving Britain to cleaner-burning natural gas, and the East German economy collapsed after the fall of communism, reducing a reunified Germany’s reliance on dirty coal plants. When you remove these two from the calculation, European emissions rose almost 12 percent between 1990 and 2005.
Many Kyoto signers will, by 2012, meet their emissions reduction targets (5.2 percent under 1990 levels) on paper. But most will do so not through reducing their own carbon emissions, but rather by buying emissions reductions from poorer, developing nations through Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM allows developed nations to pay for equivalent reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries when doing so is less expensive than reducing their own emissions. But because many of these are of questionable authenticity, the CDM is a poor substitute for reducing developed-world emissions.
Indeed, even if the world’s wealthiest nations were making substantial progress reducing their own emissions, emissions increases from developing countries like China, India, and Brazil would negate them. China’s emissions alone will grow more than 10 percent annually between 2000 and 2010–that’s more than the 2004 emissions of Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Germany combined. From an ecological perspective, even if Europe dramatically reduced its emissions, it wouldn’t matter much.
Into this morass will step the next American president. Senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all have pledged to enact deep cuts in U.S. carbon emissions over the next four decades. All support federal legislation to cap U.S. carbon emissions. And all have pledged to return to the Kyoto process and negotiate a new international agreement with binding global emissions reduction targets.
Conventional wisdom in Washington and in Europe holds that with American leadership, international efforts to achieve deep reductions of global carbon emissions will quickly get back on track. Congress will pass, and the president will sign, “cap and trade” legislation that will mandate emissions reductions. The next president will have the moral standing to negotiate a successor to Kyoto, which will require wealthy nations to reduce their emissions not by five percent but rather 80 percent by mid-century. In the face of renewed American leadership, China and India will agree to binding reductions as well, and the world will be well on its way to reducing its combined emissions 50 percent by 2050.
But these plans are wildly optimistic–and unrealistic. The entire global framework for reducing carbon emissions, and indeed the entire conceptual and policy framework for addressing global warming, is a failure, based on an older paradigm of pollution control that won’t slow global warming.
At bottom, global warming is not so much a pollution regulation challenge as it is an energy development one. To understand how different this challenge is from past pollution quandaries, consider that by 2050 global energy consumption will more than double, even as we face the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent. This transformation will not be accomplished by affixing scrubbers on smokestacks or catalytic converters on tailpipes–technical fixes that required little change to the underlying processes and technologies that they mitigated. Rather, it will require fundamental changes to the underlying technologies and fuel sources that power the global economy.
The problem with Kyoto, cap and trade, and most other policies aimed at enacting this transformation is that they focus primarily on the pollution problem, not the energy supply problem. As such, they attempt to enact the necessary transformation of the global energy economy through the indirect mechanism of pollution regulations and carbon markets, rather than through the direct deployment of new clean-energy technologies.
China, Asia, and much of the developing world are at the beginning of what will be a 30-year process to build a coal-and-oil-based energy infrastructure. China grew 9 percent last year, and its emissions grew 14 percent (U.S. emissions grew 0.5 percent, while Europe’s grew 1 percent). Given rapid economic and emissions growth in Asia, scientists in the spring of 2008 warned that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had underestimated the emissions reduction challenge. In fact, given current trends in emissions growth, that challenge may be as much as two and half times larger than the U.N. predicted.
This is a time problem, not just a scale problem. Until recently, it was thought that we had until the end of the century to transition our energy sources. But the higher rate of increasing emissions will accelerate the rate of warming, making the case for energy modernization even more urgent.
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