The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most authoritative assessment of the causes and impacts of global warming, last week released the third in its series of studies, this time focusing on ways to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. While even detractors now admit that global warming must be dealt with, the battles over actions to take are as pitched as ever. They must stop: Global warming is a fact, and the longer states delay implementation of a global plan to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, the more difficult and costly will be the adjustment.
The first report, released in February, concluded with “near certainty” that human activity was primarily responsible for rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Global temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century; greenhouse-gas emissions have increased 70 percent since 1970 and could rise an additional 90 percent by 2030 if nothing is done. The second report, released in April, detailed the effects of global warming: flooding, droughts, shifting agricultural production and mass species extinctions.
Agreement on the fact of global warming has not produced action on what to do about it. Many developed countries, the United States in particular, reject mandatory actions that risk slowing, if not stopping, their economies. They also complain that current plans, such as the Kyoto Protocol, do not impose equal burdens on developing countries that are producing prodigious amounts of greenhouse gases. For example, if China continues on its current trajectory, its yearly emissions will overtake those of the U.S. this year and double them in less than a decade.
Developing countries counter that the greenhouse-gas problem is not of their making and therefore developed countries should bear the main burden in responding to it. They charge that forcing them to pay the cost of adjustment is another way of slowing their development. While that is true — any proposal would impose costs that developed countries did not pay when they were in similar stages of development — it overlooks the fact that developing countries will be disproportionately hurt by global warming and that changes in their energy policies will have the greatest impact as they are less energy efficient.
Costs are unavoidable. Estimates depend on the level at which greenhouse-gas emissions are capped: the lower the level, the higher the cost. And the earlier the adoption of a plan, the lower the cost (it is harder to reverse high-emission policies than it is to put clean technologies in place). The IPCC’s estimates range from 0.2 percent of global GDP for a fairly lax regime to 3 percent by 2030 under the most stringent proposal. If nothing is done to stop global warming, it is estimated that global losses will be 5 percent of world economic output.
The IPCC proposed an emissions cap, under which governments would charge polluters for every ton of carbon dioxide produced beyond that limit. That would force companies to cut emissions and invest in energy efficiency and alternative fuels. The price per ton of emissions would range from $50 to $100, roughly equal to adding another 50 cents or $1 to the price of a gallon of gasoline (3.8 liters).
While realists say there is little chance that governments in Washington, Beijing or Delhi (to name the most prominent objectors) will adopt such proposals, this obstinacy reflects a failure of imagination. New energy technologies are going to be more expensive at first, but over the long run they save money — they are, after all, more efficient — and they prevent the horrific costs created by global warming. Industries that develop these new technologies will be positioned to reap profits from their use.
The world needs another technological revolution. At the beginning of the 20th century, only about 3 percent of homes had electricity. Today, only about 3 percent use renewable energy sources. That transition was unimaginable 100 years ago; a similar change may be hard to envision, but there is a need for change that is far more compelling. The best and brightest minds of government and industry need to apply themselves to finding technologies that minimize greenhouse-gas emissions and devising policies that encourage their dissemination and use. This means improving energy efficiency in buildings, vehicles and appliances; shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and capping agricultural emissions.
This is precisely the sort of challenge at which Japan has excelled, and one at which it should focus its energies. Japan should set an example, develop technologies and ensure that they are available to those that need them most. This calls for innovation among scientists, engineers and diplomats. It is a worthy focus of a nation in search of an international role.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.