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Carbon copies

Policy-makers should abandon emission-reduction negotiations and invest more in research and green alternatives. Bjorn Lomborg elaborates.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2009 21:39 IST

We run the risk of being the generation that promised a huge deal but failed to effectively respond to global warming. Negotiations to cut carbon have repeatedly failed. There is growing evidence that another set of policies — research and development into climate engineering and low-carbon energy alternatives — could be much more effective.

Unfortunately, political leaders gathering in Copenhagen this December plan to stick with an approach that has failed again and again. We have not reined in emission rises despite promises in Kyoto in 1997 and Rio in 1992. Carbon cuts are expensive. That problem is only going to grow as our promises become more ambitious.

Research by climate economist Professor Richard Tol for the Copenhagen Consensus Center shows that carbon cuts big enough to keep temperature rises lower than 2 degrees Celsius — a target that the G8 and many others have argued is necessary — could cost a staggering 12.9 per cent of global GDP in 2100, or the equivalent of $40 trillion a year. Available estimates show that the welfare loss induced by global warming will be just $3 trillion per year by 2100. Put simply: the solution is far more costly than the problem. And the $40 trillion estimate assumes that politicians everywhere in the world would, at all times, make the most effective, efficient choices possible to reduce carbon emissions. Dump that far-fetched assumption, and the cost could easily be ten or 100 times higher.

A global deal based around carbon cuts is expected to include a lot of spending from developed countries to help developing nations to prepare for global warming. There is a great danger that this will actually be diverted from saving lives, from today’s problems. Developed countries seem set to spend much money to save few lives in the distant future, instead of combating malnutrition, malaria, or communicable diseases today. It is amoral to build a dam to avoid flooding in 100 years, when the people living beside that dam are starving today: we should be helping communities become stronger today and better able to prepare for global warming in 50 years time.

Little wonder that five of the world’s top economists — including three Nobel laureates — who gathered this summer for the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate to evaluate policy responses to climate change found that global carbon taxes are a “very poor” option.

Yet, carbon cuts have become the mantra of the political elite of developed nations. We need another way that is moral, politically feasible and economically responsible. World leaders should focus on the investments that the economists for the Copenhagen Consensus project found most promising: increased research into climate engineering and into low-carbon energy alternatives.

Research from Eric Bickel of the University of Texas highlights the potential of climate engineering to provide a short-term answer to warming.

Bickel and his co-author Lee Lane explore the costs and benefits of so-called marine cloud whitening, a well-established tech-proposal in which boats would spray seawater droplets into clouds above the sea to make them reflect more sunlight back into space-augmenting the natural process where evaporating ocean sea salt helps to provide tiny particles for clouds to form around. Bickel concludes that about $9 billion spent developing this technology might be able to cancel out this century’s global warming. The benefits — from preventing the temperature increase — would add up to about $20 trillion.

We should research this technology today to identify its limitations, risks and potential as a stop-gap measure that could buy us a century’s delay in warming.

To sustainably reduce temperature rises, though, we need better non-carbon based technology options. Research by economist Professor Chris Green from McGill University shows that non-fossil sources like nuclear, wind, solar and geothermal energy will — based on today’s availability — get us less than half-way towards a path of stable carbon emissions by 2050, and only a tiny fraction of the way towards stabilisation by 2100.

Policy-makers should abandon carbon-reduction negotiations and make agreements to seriously invest in research and development. About $100 billion spent annually on non-carbon based energy research could essentially stabilise our emissions and get temperature reductions under control within a century or so. Green conservatively concludes that the benefits of such an investment — from reduced warming and greater prosperity — would bring about $11 worth of climate damage prevention for every $1 invested.

Because research spending would be much cheaper than carbon emission cuts, there would be a much higher chance of political agreement, and a much higher probability of the promises being enacted.

Many of us fear inaction on global warming. But we should equally fear continuing down the perilous path of promising costly action that will either fail to be enacted, or be more harmful than global warming itself. We have within our grasp alternative policy options that would truly leave the planet in a better state.

Bjorn Lomborg is Director, Copenhagen Consensus Center, Copenhagen Business School and the author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming

The views expressed by the author are personal