New ways of thinking on climate change are needed if the world is to create a workable post-Kyoto Protocol framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, European scholars told a recent symposium in Tokyo.
Solutions to climate change must be ecologically sustainable and economically viable, the scholars said, stressing that the participation of all major emitters is crucial to building an effective tool against the rapidly expanding concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Four experts from Europe spoke at the Jan. 21 symposium organized by the Keizai Koho Center under the theme, “Climate change: Considering post-Kyoto frameworks with European scholars.” Akihiro Sawa, a senior executive fellow at the 21st Century Public Policy Institute, served as moderator of the discussions.
Gwyn Prins, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, co-authored an essay in 2007 titled, “Time to ditch Kyoto,” saying that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol had failed to produce even modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Reliable scientific data show that the world continues to see an unprecedented increase in the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Prins told the symposium.
With the Kyoto pact set to expire in 2012, countries are aiming to agree on a successor framework at a December 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Prins said the only way to save the Copenhagen meeting from failure would be to shift away from the top-down approach of the Kyoto framework, and end the quest for tighter emissions targets, closer timetables and more binding regulations.
Public opinion would also have to be taken into account just as the world faces a deep recession, the professor said.
“What are people worried about? In 2008, it was clear that they were worried about food security. In 2009, everybody is filled with fear for themselves, their families, their jobs and their homes as we enter the slump,” he said. “At the same time, there is growing resistance in countries, including those in continental Europe, to any form of taxation or legislation that will increase direct costs to consumers for stated environmental purposes.”
Efforts to put climate change at the center of a multilateral diplomatic agenda have been displaced by the energy crisis as the price of oil shot up to $140 per barrel last year, Prins said. During the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido in July 2008, participants talked about how to reduce the price of oil while having separate discussions on how to raise the price of gasoline for the purpose of mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, he said.
Prins said if countries want to actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions, they should concentrate on the other side of climate policy — energy policy. “You need to shift from political obsession with output target setting . . . and have input goals by sector, and concentrate on the most heavy energy-using sectors first,” the professor told the audience.
This, he said, is also the view of new U.S. President Barack Obama.
“The United States under President Obama would no more sign the Kyoto Protocol than it would have done under President George W. Bush,” Prins said. However, you can expect an aggressive set of actions from the Obama administration on the supply side, on research and development of new energy, and renovation of the country’s power-generation infrastructure, he added.
Japan should be encouraged by this “because all that you are hearing from the Obama administration fits” the sectoral approach to reducing energy intensity advocated by Tokyo, Prins said.
Atte Korhola, a University of Helsinki professor, stressed that it is crucial that all countries are involved in the post-Kyoto climate change mitigation policy.
One major reason behind the sharp increase in global carbon dioxide emissions — exceeding even the worst-case scenarios — is the rise in carbon intensity of industrial output and energy production in some emerging economies, including China, Korhola said.
While China’s economy expanded at 9.5 percent annually over the past 27 years, the country relies on coal for two-thirds of its primary energy use, he said. Today, it is bringing two additional coal-fired power plants to the electric grid every week — and 562 new coal-fired plants will be added by 2012, he said.
As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions are increasing much faster than had been anticipated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and are estimated to rise 11 percent annually during the 2004-2010 period, Korhola said.
“So with anything more than 5 percent growth in GDP, China’s emissions by 2030 would alone be as much as the whole world is emitting today. So it’s absolutely essential that we get all the countries in the climate change mitigation policy,” he told the audience.
At the same time, Korhola noted that no linear relationship has been established between the increased emissions and the rise in global temperature. “There is absolutely global warming . . . but data also show that global warming has slowed and stabilized during the last 10 years” even as greenhouse gas emissions increased at an unprecedented rate, the professor said.
The point, he said, is that the world has to learn to live with uncertainties related to climate change. “And we have to select tools and policy methods on the basis of this uncertainty, and also on the basis of cost efficiency.”
In assessing whether specific solutions to climate change will be functional, the first criteria should be ecological sustainability, Korhola said. “Any solution that we develop should not create other environmental problems. It must be comprehensively ecologically sustainable,” he said.
The second criteria, he noted, is that the solutions must be something that factually improves the condition of the atmosphere — carbon dioxide concentrations.
What’s more important, Korhola said, is that the solution should be economically viable. “That’s crucial because otherwise we lose the motivation of people to be involved in climate mitigation,” he said.
Cast in such light, Korhola said the climate and energy policy adopted by the European Union in December has some weaknesses.
Targets set under the policy call for a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by EU member states, increasing to 20 percent the share of renewables in energy consumption, and a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency — all by 2020.
Korhola said these time schedules are very tight, and are causing some serious problems and concerns. The target for increasing the use of renewables to 20 percent from 8.5 percent in just about a decade might lead to the overuse of European forest for energy purposes, he said, adding that this is an “example of how a solution probably is not ecologically sustainable.”
This is also alarming because forests serve as carbon sinks — a factor that is often forgotten and neglected, he noted.
The professor also expressed concern that the target to increase the share of biofuels to 10 percent of energy consumption in transportation “can lead to many, many types of ecological disasters.”
“It increases the use of water, increases the price of food, increases deforestation, increases land erosion and degradation,” he said. There may be good solutions to come in the future “but now the EU is forcing us to employ inefficient and very expensive ways to use first-generation biofuels that are causing much more harm than the benefits that are arising from their use,” he added.
Korhola said one of the problems in conventional ways of thinking on global warming is the view that climate change is a pollution problem — just like acid rain or ozone depletion — and that you can solve these environmental problems by legislation.
“That worked with acid rain. It was easy, and relatively cheap to solve the problem of sulfur emissions from factories and energy generation,” the professor said. “But climate change is a totally different problem. . . . It’s a multidimensional problem, not one-dimensional like all previous global environmental problems.”
Also problematic is the view that the world possesses technological solutions to climate change — and that what’s needed is only to implement those solutions, he said. “But given that emissions are rising so rapidly, we clearly see that we do not have solutions yet. So we see the need for massive investment in clean energy technology, research and development, and deployment in key positions,” the scholar said.