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Fighting Climate Change? We’re Not Even Landing a Punch – Opinion

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By EDUARDO PORTER January 23 2018 read full NYTimes column here

In 1988, when world leaders convened their first global conference on climate change in Toronto, the Earth’s average temperature was a bit more than half a degree Celsius above the average of the last two decades of the 19th century, according to measurements by NASA.

Global emissions of greenhouse gases amounted to the equivalent of some 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year — excluding those from deforestation and land use. Worried about its accumulation, the gathered scientists and policymakers called on the world to cut CO2 emissions by a fifth.

That didn’t happen, of course. By 1997, when climate diplomats from the world’s leading nations gathered to negotiate a round of emissions cuts in Kyoto, Japan, emissions had risen to some 35 billion tons and the global surface temperature was roughly 0.7 degrees Celsius above the average of the late 19th century.

It took almost two decades for the next breakthrough. When diplomats from virtually every country gathered in Paris just over two years ago to hash out another agreement to combat climate change, the world’s surface temperature was already about 1.1 degrees Celsius above its average at the end of the 1800s. And greenhouse gas emissions totaled just under 50 billion tons….

 

…Climate diplomats in Paris didn’t merely reassert prior commitments to keep the world’s temperature less than 2 degrees above that of the “preindustrial” era — a somewhat fuzzy term that could be taken to mean the second half of the 19th century. Hoping to appease island nations like the Maldives, which are likely to be swallowed by a rising ocean in a few decades, they set a new “aspirational” ceiling of 1.5 degrees.

To stick to a 2 degree limit, we would have to start reducing global emissions for real within about a decade at most — and then do more. Half a century from now, we would have to figure out how to suck vast amounts of carbon out of the air. Keeping the lid at 1.5 degrees would be much harder still.

And yet, when experts tallied the offers made in Paris by all the countries in the collective effort, they concluded that greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 would exceed the level needed to remain under 2 degrees by 12 to 14 billion tons of CO2.

Are there better approaches? The “climate club” proposed by the Yale University economist William Nordhaus has the advantage of including an enforcement device, which current arrangements lack: countries in the club, committed to reducing carbon emissions, would impose a tariff on imports from nonmembers to encourage them to join.

Martin Weitzman of Harvard University supports the idea of a uniform worldwide tax on carbon emissions, which might be easier to agree on than a panoply of national emissions cuts. One clear advantage is that countries could use their tax revenues as they saw fit.

Mr. Barrett argues that the Paris agreement could be supplemented with narrower, simpler deals to curb emissions of particular gases — such as the 2016 agreement at a 170-nation meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, to reduce hydrofluorocarbon emissions — or in particular industries, like aviation or steel.

Maybe none of this would work. The climate club could blow up if nonmembers retaliated against import tariffs by imposing trade barriers of their own. Coordinating taxes around the world looks at least as difficult as addressing climate change. And Mr. Barrett’s proposal might not deliver a breakthrough on the scale necessary to move the dial.

 

But what definitely won’t suffice is a climate strategy built out of wishful thinking: the proposition that countries can be cajoled and prodded into increasing their ambition to cut emissions further, and that laggards can be named and shamed into falling into line.

Inveigled by three decades of supposed diplomatic progress — coupled with falling prices of wind turbines, solar panels and batteries — the activists, technologists and policymakers driving the strategy against climate change seem to have concluded that the job can be done without unpalatable choices. And the group is closing doors that it would do best to keep open.

There is no momentum for investing in carbon capture and storage, since it could be seen as condoning the continued use of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy, the only source of low-carbon power ever deployed at the needed scale, is also anathema. Geoengineering, like pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s heat back into space, is another taboo.

But eventually, these options will most likely be on the table, as the consequences of climate change come more sharply into focus. The rosy belief that the world can reduce its carbon dependency over a few decades by relying exclusively on the power of shame, the wind and the sun will give way to a more realistic understanding of possibilities.

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