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Cold Reality of Global Warming Efforts March 12, 2009

Posted by honestclimate in Discussions.
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Cold Reality of Global Warming Efforts

Posted on ICECAP

By Martin Livermore

Setting targets to cut emissions is easy, achieving them is not, says Martin Livermore. In this week’s Green Room, he questions the current wisdom of placing so much faith in systems that have failed to deliver.  The impression is that governments want to say the right things, but hope that the whole issue will go away before they have to do anything. To some, any suggestion that the world is not on course to make drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions smacks of heresy and should be given no credence.

In their view, fossil fuel use simply must be reduced if we are to avoid disaster later in the century. But, although most politicians subscribe to the view (informed by the scientific mainstream) that urgent action is needed to avoid possibly catastrophic global warming, policy actions do not yet match their words. Setting targets is easy, achieving them is not.

The much-vaunted European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has turned out to be an ineffective and costly piece of market fixing, which will not achieve its stated aims. Carbon offsetting is even worse: transferring money to developing countries to fund projects that probably would have been implemented anyway, and with little real impact on emissions. The carbon emissions market risks being the next bubble to burst.

A dose of cold realism is needed if any significant, affordable reductions in carbon intensity are to be made. Believing strongly that drastic reductions in fossil fuel use are essential does not make them happen; it just ignores the reality that effective action is not taking place. It is in everyone’s interest, whether you fully believe or are sceptical of the received wisdom, to accept this rather than allow policymakers to repeat the mantra of emissions reduction without taking realistic and effective action.

The impression is that governments want to say the right things, but hope that the whole issue will go away before they have to do anything. Why would so many powerful people say that global warming is the single biggest threat facing humanity and yet fail to take action?  There are probably three main reasons for this. The first is timescale. Put simply, weather patterns are just not following the sort of steady trend which would instil confidence in IPCC pronouncements. No amount of “it’s even worse than we thought” headlines will convince a sceptical public if the words don’t fit with the evidence of their own eyes. 1998 remains the warmest year on record, and since then there has been no discernable upward trend.  Last year saw a miserable summer in much of western Europe, and the same countries are in the middle of a winter which has been colder than for many years. For the average layman, global warming remains a distant prospect.

Politicians are naturally reluctant to impose apparently unwarranted costs on their citizens if those same people can vote them out of office at the next election. Which leads to the second point: whoever bears the initial cost, ultimately taxpayers (and therefore voters) will have to pay. Businesses may have to buy emission permits, but (unless the cost is so small as to be meaningless as an incentive to reduce energy consumption) they will pass on the additional amount to their customers. Whether we care to admit it or not, it is wealth created in the private sector which is taxed and enables the public sector to operate. The two cannot be divorced. If businesses have higher costs, they either try to absorb them, become uncompetitive and fail (leading to both lower tax revenues and higher welfare costs for the state) or they put their prices up and consumers pay.

After you… The third reason follows naturally: neither companies nor countries want to go out on a limb. For almost all countries, it is a case of “we will if you will”. If everyone moves in concert, then co-ordinated action is possible. If some countries are perceived to be benefiting unfairly, then the whole system can fall apart. This is the reason why agreement on a post-Kyoto deal in Copenhagen in December is going to be so difficult. This is only the first stage of a long process, a setting of targets and commitments.

The world recession will cut energy consumption and help reduce emissions (every cloud has a silver lining), but will make no structural changes to how we generate and use energy. What chance, then, for the far more demanding post-Kyoto targets? Faced with a less than enthusiastic electorate, suspicious of the motives of other countries and having learnt some hard lessons from the example of Kyoto, it is hardly surprising that politicians try to play a waiting game. They go with the flow in setting targets for carbon dioxide emissions reductions, but do not take radical action to achieve this because they want neither to alienate voters nor harm the economy. This is not to say that drastic reduction of fossil fuel use without upsetting most members of the public is impossible. The answer is to use the best available and most cost effective low carbon technology for base load generation (nuclear power), increase the focus on energy efficiency in all sectors of the economy, and encourage R&D on new transport and power generation technologies. But to start to move in this direction needs policymakers to acknowledge the hard fact that the present unwarranted faith in power from renewables and emphasis on punishing emitters is going nowhere. Read more here.

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