In a recent article for The European, Bjørn Lomborg argues that the effort to strengthen the international regime based on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is fruitless. But, he says, this may not matter since a modest investment in research and development (only 0.2 per cent of global GDP) would turn up technological innovations that could solve the climate problem without a legally binding international agreement of the sort called for under the Durban Platform adopted by the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties last year.
We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket
Lomborg’s logic makes sense to a degree. Efforts to reach a legally binding agreement on climate change are slow and often frustrating. Technological innovations can help to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. There is every reason to invest in the research and development needed to promote such innovations.
Yet Lomborg’s logic is faulty on at least two counts. There are many ways to reduce emissions including demand side management, increases in energy efficiency, greater reliance on renewables or nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, and the development of as yet unknown green technologies.
Portland, Oregon, for example, has reduced per capita emissions by 25% largely by persuading people to adopt lifestyles that are less energy intensive. More generally, events that are difficult to anticipate affect the relative merits of specific options. The shale gas revolution in the United States, for example, has triggered a sharp increase in the use of natural gas, contributing to an overall reduction in US emissions of greenhouse gases by 9+%. The Fukushima disaster, on the other hand, has undermined the willingness of many to step up the use of nuclear energy as a means of reducing emissions in places as far-removed from the site of the disaster as Germany.
Three things seem clear in this connection. First, many alternatives to energy derived from fossil fuels would become attractive if emitters of greenhouse gases were required to pay the full costs arising from the use of such fuels. Second, the relative attractions of specific alternatives are subject to dramatic fluctuations (including shifts in public policies) that we cannot forecast with any precision. Third, this means that we should explore actively the full range of alternatives rather than putting all our eggs in one basket (e.g. wind or solar power, nuclear energy, hydrogen fuel cells).
We can hope that technological innovation will turn up alternatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that are so attractive financially that consumers will turn to them voluntarily. This prospect is not altogether unrealistic. It doesn’t take a legally binding commitment to make operators of power plants see the virtues of switching from dirty coal to cheaper and cleaner natural gas. This is a factor in the recent decline in American emissions.
Yet, and here is the second issue, this does not mean that there is no need to pursue an international agreement of the sort envisioned in the Durban Platform. Why? So long as users of energy are not required to cut back on emissions of greenhouse gases, they will choose energy sources that minimize costs regardless of their impact on emissions. In many cases, their choices will fail to reduce emissions; they may even increase emissions. We find ourselves facing a situation of the sort known as the “tragedy of the commons” in which individual consumers behave as free riders, hoping that others will take steps to reduce emissions while they continue with business as usual.
How should we proceed under the circumstances? A legally-binding agreement based on the UNFCCC and drawing in most of the world’s countries is one option. We should not give up on this strategy.
But it is not the only way forward. Actions taken under the ozone regime have produced greater reductions of greenhouse gas emissions than actions under the UNFCCC. That is why we should address the problem of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), an important greenhouse gas, within this forum.
Paving the way
Between them, China and the US account for about 44% of global emissions of carbon dioxide. An agreement between these two to make a serious push toward reducing emissions could set us on the road toward solving the climate problem. Add the European Union and India, and we are up to more than 60% of emissions. A four-party agreement certainly would pave the way toward a solution.
Lomborg is right that everyone would switch to emissions-free technologies if they could meet their energy needs and save money by doing so. We should work hard to come up with such technologies. But experience to date offers no basis for expecting a simple technological fix for the climate problem. Accordingly, we must strive to negotiate international agreements, especially among the principal emitters of greenhouse gases.