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What does the world need most - should the cost of cutting carbon stop us trying?
carbon, solar, recycle, climate, renewable

Bjorn Lomberg, the ‘Skeptical Envionmentalist’, has warned that the climate debate is leading countries to make dangerous promises that can’t be fulfilled. That even if they could, the cost of action would be crippling to many countries.

He’s right that the costs of transforming economies to a low-carbon framework as calculated by economists could be wrong, on the grounds that the process of taking action within a political framework means costs are likely to be higher than anticipated. Any legislation created to accelerate that transition is likely to contain other objectives, as well as funding for other special interest groups and more.

He’s also got a point, that politicians are increasingly talking about taking protectionist action (against countries without binding emissions targets). In the US for example, Congress passed the Waxman-Markey bill with a warning that the US might impose tariffs on imports from countries where there are no legally binding emissions reductions. The French have led a call for an EU tax on imports for such reasons. Given the fact that the DOHA trade negotiations are taking place at the same time as the climate negotiations there is understandable cause for concern that the world is moving away from a free-trade approach. It’s especially difficult as those countries without binding emissions are often also those countries with the poorest populations.

The issues surrounding climate change, international trade, international aid and the political process are undeniably complicated. However conflating them doesn’t do anyone any favours.  Many stalwarts of the sustainable movement, and of development aid, are vehemently opposed to the tone of the climate negotiations, deeply concerned that a focus on climate issues will see international funds funnelled soley in that direction, leaving funding for critical problems such as health care, clean water and development aid. The difficulty with Lomberg’s position is that he doesn’t offer an alternative, except to say that we should allow CO2 emissions to continue.

Lomberg says:

“In our eagerness to avoid about $1 trillion worth of climate damage, we are being asked to spend at least 50 times as much - and, if we hinder free trade, we are likely to heap at least an additional $50 trillion loss on the global economy.”

His underlying argument seems to be that while coal and the like are causing environmental damage, cutting its use dramatically will deprive billions from a means of breaking out of poverty. The issue is one of weighing the consequences of action or inaction in the balance. In his book he suggests that global warming could result in an annual increase of 400,000 heat-related deaths, but 1.8m fewer cold-related deaths, for a net gain of 1.4 million lives. So we're being asked to weigh long term versus short term benefits.

Taking that approach, the question that must be asked is whether a short term trip on the path to prosperity is worth the consequences. Many of those most in need of a way out of poverty live in countries likely to be most dramatically affected by climate change. What’s the point of having a fridge, if you’ve got no food to keep in it?

Seasonal changes in temperature can affect the ability of crops to grow, affecting our ability to feed ourselves and having a direct impact on the ability of a range of species to survive. The increasing acidity of the oceans (as more CO2 dissolves in the sea-water) could influence water eco-systems and their ability to support sea-borne life. At the same time, increasing volatility in weather systems could result in ever more violent cyclones and hurricanes – there is precedent for this: a storm surge in Bangladesh killed 300,000 people in 1970 and further surges killed 200,000 people there in the 1980s.

As things stand, the process to trying to cut carbon emissions from our atmosphere are an attempt to cut the likelihood of abrupt climate change – to keep overall warming to about 2 degrees. And the science suggests that we’ve only got a 50:50 chance of doing that today.

According to Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center, any attempt to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius will prove economically crippling, and that a gradual approach will be necessary. Lomborg has argued that the UN’s approach could result in crippling economic costs, and that meeting that goal could cost 12.9% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100.

In the report, ‘An Analysis of Mitigation as a Response to Climate Change’, Professor Dr. Richard Tol argues that a clever and gradual abatement policy could substantially reduce emissions (such as stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at 650 and 550 ppm CO2e) at an acceptable cost (1 or 2 years of growth out of 100, respectively) – meaning at a lower cost to society than current emission reduction policies. Yet the science suggests that CO2e levels of 650ppm could result in temperature increases of over 4 degrees celcius.

Globally,  a 4C (39.2F) temperature rise could have a cataclysmic impact, with climate change impacts of desertification, reduction in clean water supply and more, with the most dramatic impacts occuring in the developing world. The 2006 Stern Review predicted that increases of that level would see between 7 and 300 million (dependent on the increase in sea levels) more people affected by coastal flooding each year, a 30–50% reduction in water availability in southern Africa and in the Mediterranean, a fall in agricultural yields of between 15–35% in Africa and that 20–50% of animal and plant species would face extinction. A recent report from the Met Office says that such a temperature increase could happen by 2060.

If emissions don’t start to decrease soon, we run the risk of fundamentally changing the underlying balance of the climate. Some scientists believe that an increase in temperature of more than 4 degrees has a 50% chance of tipping the climate into a new state. These climate tipping points include the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, collapse of the rainforest, disruption of the monsoon system and even the creation of oxygen holes within the seas, that could dramatically impact on the food chain. Last week’s report from the UN Environment Programme said that, since 2000, emissions have increased even faster than the IPCC’s worst case scenario – you know, the one that everyone said could never happen!

So really the question seems to be whether the short term cost of action now is likely to have greater long term benefits or whether it would be best to allow countries to continue to pollute, in order that they can afford to bring populations out of poverty? Over the next fifty years, the global commons is going to have to find a way to feed and water a further 3 billion people. Without the capacity to source sufficient water and food, the economic prosperity of those people may well be moot.

Posted via email from Conquering Carbon


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