New Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said in early September that he would stand by a campaign pledge to reduce his country’s climate emissions to 25% below 1990 levels in 10 years—but only if “all major countries agree to ambitious targets.” That presumably includes China and India. “Will Japan also commit to providing aid to the developing world?” Meyer asks. “That’s a big question.”
David Doniger, climate policy director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, provides a nuanced critique. “The cartoon view of Kyoto was that the developing countries weren’t prepared to make any commitments,” he says. Doniger pointed out that the Hagel-Byrd Senate resolution (passed on a 95-0 vote in 1997) demanded that the U.S. not be signatory to any treaty “unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.” And with that as a condition, the U.S. would never be party to a consensus agreement.
“But in the last three or four years, a lot has changed,” Doniger says. “The U.S. understanding that global warming is real is way up from what it was 12 years ago. And, with one or two exceptions, developing countries have also changed their attitudes. Both China and Mexico, with both internal and foreign relations drivers, are moving away from their roles as very dirty emitters. Big developing countries understand that their own sustainable economic growth requires movement to cleaner energy sources. China has been acknowledging it will change its high-emissions business as usual.”
One reason for the sea change is that, as E wrote in its book Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge), the effects of global warming have become apparent and observable. “Scientific advisors inside the developing countries are telling their governments not only that global warming is real, but that it will have its worst effects in developing countries,” Doniger says. Doniger points at India, “which has been talking a very tough line. But the perception is that if the rest of the developing world moves, India will have to follow.” India is a big player, accounting, says the EIA, for 7% of the increase in emissions by 2030, when it will emit 1.3 billion metric tons annually.
The U.S. rejected Kyoto in part because it gave developing countries some breathing room. Despite the Senate’s resolution, it required wealthier countries to act first in cutting emissions, then to financially assist poor countries in making their own reductions. But the rich countries mostly failed to meet their goals and, according to Joseph Romm, a former Clinton-era DOE official who now runs the ClimateProgress.org blog, “Emissions have exploded at a faster rate than even the UNs’ most pessimistic scenario.”
Romm thinks the draft Copenhagen treaty has two flaws that should be addressed before COP15 convenes. It unrealistically demands that industrialized countries reduce emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020—and it completely leaves out any mention of China. Romm says, “The new climate protocol should require China to at least stall emissions growth at under half the past decade’s rate and ensure that the country’s emissions peak no later than 2025.”
Although China is finally making clean energy commitments, it is difficult to imagine it meekly accepting Romm’s scenario. In an E interview, Romm said he is not particularly optimistic about the prospects for Copenhagen. “Given that the process didn’t begin until January…I don’t think Copenhagen was ever going to deliver much more than a framework,” he says.
And, he adds, “The likelihood of getting a climate bill out of Congress is about 50-50 right now, but if President Obama puts his full weight behind it, then I think we”ll get a bill. I’m not certain it matters whether the Senate votes before or after Copenhagen. What matters is that the Senate passes a bill with shrinking carbon caps.”
Most scientists present their findings in peer-reviewed papers that appear in Nature or Science; few wade into the roiling waters of partisan politics and policy making. One of our foremost climate scientists, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now often gives lectures and signs petitions—compelled by the urgency of what he calls “a planet in peril.”
Hansen’s impressive scholarship is what gives him credibility when he backs go-faster scenarios intended to avert a catastrophe. The dangerous level of atmospheric CO2 “is much less than once believed,” he said in Congressional testimony back in February. “The safe level is no higher than 350 parts per million (ppm), probably less, and we have just passed 385 ppm…We cannot burn all of the coal, let alone unconventional fossil fuels such as oil shale, unless the combustion products are all captured and disposed of, which is implausible. We must put a price, a rising price, on carbon emissions.”
Hansen’s proposal starts with a carbon price of about $115 per ton of CO2, which translates to a $1-a-gallon tax on gasoline “large enough to affect purchasing decisions.” The tax would yield $670 billion annually, and 100% of the money would be returned to the public ($3,000 per adult). The tax-and-dividend proposal produces a strong financial incentive for lowering one’s carbon footprint, because the less fossil fuel is burned, the more likely the dividend will exceed the tax.
Hansen calls cap-and-trade proposals, which give corporations financial incentives to curb their emissions, “tax and trade,” because he believes it is “wrong and disingenuous’ to hide the taxation—and increased energy prices—at the core of the idea. He also charges that cap and trade will cause energy price volatility, enrich Wall Street traders and, because of its complexity, invite lobbyists to propose weakening changes and delay implementation.
Cap and trade, he says, “will surely be inadequate to achieve the sharp reduction of emissions that is needed,” but a straightforward—and steep—carbon tax will meet the challenge. Unfortunately, cap and trade is perceived as potentially winnable (despite the Republican opposition that Gelbspan cites) precisely because it is not labeled a tax, and a carbon tax is undisguised.
No Time for Delay
The climate activists at 350.org, with their goals endorsed by heavyweights such as R.K. Pachauri of the IPCC, have been trying to hold the world to 350 ppm of
CO2 in the atmosphere, but as Hansen points out it has already soared past that. While the world debates global warming, CO2 emissions—slowed only by global recession, not appreciably by international policy—continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Here are some of the recently observed changes (many courtesy of Ross Gelbspan at The Heat Is Online):
” The world’s carbon emissions are rising three times faster than they did in the 1990s, and, according to the International Energy Agency, the cost of avoiding dangerous climate change may be three times higher than the IPCC’s 2007 estimate;
” Scientists expect at least half the years between 2009 and 2019 to surpass the average temperature of 1998—the hottest year on record;
” Ice melt in the Antarctic, the Arctic and in Greenland is enough to double the rate of sea-level rise, which means as much as a six-foot rise by the end of the century (remember that a six-foot rise swamps the Maldives). The Arctic is warmer than it has been in 2,000 years.
” The world average ocean temperature just set a record of 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, water temperature was the hottest it has been in 130 years of record-keeping;
” A team of international scientists, meeting in Copenhagen in the run-up to COP15, say that the world faces increased risk of “abrupt and irreversible climatic shifts’ as global warming moves faster than anticipated.
Global warming is accelerating, in part, because our planet itself is starting to react—by, among other things—releasing storehouses of the potent greenhouse gas methane and giving up the natural ability of forests and oceans to absorb CO2. Mother Nature is trying to get our attention, and it’s unclear if she”ll have it in Copenhagen and the halls of Congress.