A world climate entirely of our own making

IN THE history of diplomacy, probably no international negotiation has received as much attention, and achieved as little, as the climate-change negotiations. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen every year since negotiations began more than 15 years ago.

By Scott Barrett

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Published: Tue 6 Jun 2006, 9:52 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:43 PM

They will go on rising, even as the Kyoto Protocol is implemented. A new approach to negotiation is needed, but governments must also confront the reality of climate change. It is unlikely that concentrations will stabilise within the next several decades. Other kinds of international response are required.

The physics of climate change are simple. Gases that occur naturally in the atmosphere trap the sun’s heat, mostly as it radiates back from the Earth, keeping the planet about 34 C warmer than it otherwise would be. This is the natural greenhouse effect. Human activity, at least since the industrial age, but probably since the invention of settled agriculture, has added to this concentration of gases.

Global mean temperature has increased about 0.6C over the last century, but even if concentrations were stabilised today, the temperature would continue to rise because of a delayed thermal response. By 2100, mean global temperature is expected to rise by1.4 to 5.8C and sea level by 0.09 to 0.88 meters over this same period, as a result of thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Of course, if concentrations continue unchecked, the climate will change still more. The Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiated in 1992, establishes the goal of stabilising concentrations at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This would seem a sensible goal. However, the goal may not be the best way to approach the problem.

One reason is that limiting concentrations has a cost. Substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within the next few decades would require a massive increase in nuclear power. In reducing one risk — climate change — the world would add another. The danger of an accident, a terrorist attack, coupled with the problem of nuclear waste disposal — all these risks would need to be borne. As well, we don’t know the concentration level that is ‘dangerous’. Thresholds undoubtedly exist, but we don’t know exactly where they exist.

We only know that the probability of encountering a threshold increases with the concentration level. It is also essential to define ‘dangerous’. Climate change is unlikely to pose an existential threat to humanity. It won’t even result in massive loss of human life. Because the consequences of climate change are limited, the response is also likely to be limited. Hard choices must be made.

Expressing a goal in terms of concentrations implies that mitigation is what matters, but that is not true. Damages associated with climate change can also be reduced by adaptation. The term ‘adaptation’ is normally taken to include efforts like switching the crops that farmers grow or reinforcing the Thames Barrier to protect London from rising tides. But adaptation has many more implications.

The poorest countries are the most vulnerable to climate change. For example, malaria spreading to new territories will result in a substantial loss in life. What should be done about it? One option would be to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations to limit this threat. Another, however, would be to invest in malaria control, including the prevention of resistance to anti-malarial drugs and the development of a vaccine. The latter investments would not only reduce the increase in malaria associated with climate change, but reduce the burden of malaria overall. These are the kinds of choices we must face.

The world has taken some steps, but the Kyoto Protocol’s aspiration to reduce emissions is astonishingly modest. While stabilisation of concentrations will eventually require a cut in global emissions of more than 50 per cent, and further reductions beyond that, Kyoto asks only a small number of countries to reduce emissions by a small bit for a period of five years. Of course, Kyoto was only intended as a first step. But the problem is that Kyoto cannot sustain even the little that it sets out to achieve. One challenge is convincing countries to participate in the agreement. The US, of course, dropped its support, and in a most undiplomatic manner. But the US decision is part of a general pattern. Developing countries, for example, have participated in great numbers, but only because Kyoto does not require them to reduce emissions. Other nations will have difficulty complying with the agreement. This will require substantial investment in R&D.

With luck, R&D might discover a ‘silver bullet’ technology that produces energy at lower cost than fossil fuels. However, this seems unlikely. At the very least, R&D could reduce the costs of meeting the kinds of emission limits incorporated within Kyoto, but this would not make a material difference to the climate. R&D would have a more profound impact if the technologies developed were characterised by increasing returns, but no technology currently being considered displays this characteristic. Finally, a focus on technology may help overcome domestic political economy challenges for mitigation.

Rich countries will need to finance new technologies, but poor countries should be the priority markets. Countries like China and India are growing rapidly, and any investment underlying this new growth should be climate-friendly. Indeed, Kyoto got the design exactly wrong. It lets the poor countries grow like the rich countries and then transition onto a new development path when it would have been better to encourage the fast-growing poor countries to shift onto a new, more climate-friendly development path — financed by the rich countries — as a matter of urgency. The rich countries should move onto such a path more gradually as their own capital stock is retired.

This different approach requires government leadership in R&D, private-sector development of new technologies, and government leadership in creating markets for the new technologies worldwide. It will also require a North-South partnership for a new kind of global development. These are big ambitions, but modest proposals cannot address the challenge of climate change. — Yale Global

Scott Barrett is professor and director of the International Policy Programme with the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He wrote Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making published by Oxford University Press

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