Practical steps to climate control

October 9th, 2012

May 28, 2007

If global warming is the ultimate inconvenient truth, the most important inconvenient truth about global warming policy, argued in last month’s column, is what happens in the developing world. These countries will deliver three-quarters of the increase in global greenhouse gas emissions over the next generation, on current forecasts. Beyond the developing world’s preponderant impact on emissions, there is the additional reality that because so much of economic activity is mobile, policies that restrict emissions in some places but not everywhere may just relocate emissions not reduce them.

Developing countries recognise that today’s greenhouse gas problem was made mostly by industrial countries, that their own energy usage per capita represents about 20 per cent of the corresponding industrial country usage and that their citizens have pressing material needs. They are also keenly aware of the uncertainty surrounding projections of economic growth, patterns of production and future energy technologies. It is easy to sympathise with their extreme reluctance to commit to levels of emissions decades from now that are lower than what industrial countries are emitting today.

For these and other reasons, I argued last time that the Kyoto approach to climate change – through the setting of targets – could prove to be like the League of Nations approach to preserving peace: idealistic and visionary yet impractical, ultimately ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive because of the valuable political capital it consumes. I hope I am wrong but I fear that commitments to vast reductions in emissions decades hence are no more real than commitments to end aggressions or war.

What then should be done either instead of or as a complement to the Kyoto approach? The place to start is with the recognition that it is much easier for governments to make and keep commitments to policies they can control than to outcomes they cannot assure. Whatever targets are negotiated or set, emphasis should also be placed on concrete measures that will have meaningful impact.

First, the US must engage in an energy efficiency programme that takes effect without delay and has meaningful bite. As long as developing countries can point to the US as a free rider there will not be serious dialogue about what they are willing to do. I prefer carbon and/or gasoline tax measures to permit systems or heavy regulatory approaches because the latter are more likely to be economically inefficient and to be regressive. The key point is that after Kyoto, where there was US vision in setting goals but no on-the-ground action, there must be real policy commitments.

Second, the major industrial countries should commit to a very large increase in funding for research in technologies that offer the prospect of reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases, such as renewable energy, carbon sequestration and energy efficient engines. They should also learn a lesson from the pharmaceutical experience and commit to making intellectual property relating to clean energy available to developing countries on preferential terms. It may be that ambitious emissions- reduction targets can be achieved with existing technology, yet new technologies could help.

Third, the World Bank, and probably the regional development banks, should be reconstituted by their shareholders as “Banks for Development and the Global Environment” and take on as a major mission the provision of subsidised capital for projects that have environmental benefits that go beyond national borders. There is much that can be done to encourage energy efficiency in almost every sector within developing countries, yet national governments have inadequate incentives to take account of global impacts. Moreover, the institutions need a new role with respect to countries other than the poorest ones at a time when the leading developing countries are actually exporting rather than importing capital.

Fourth, a goal should be set of eliminating by 2025 the more than $200bn the world spends each year on energy subsidies, and enforced through strategies such as those used for inappropriate subsidies in trade. This is a clear case where environmental and economic imperatives coincide and it is one where external political commitment is likely to be desirable in many countries, just as in the trade area. This will require considerable work on the definition of and measurement of total energy subsidies. Such work will lay a foundation for the more ambitious efforts that may be needed in harmonising world energy prices above market levels in the future.

There is a final critical process element in the policy response. Given that viable solutions depend on significant changes in developing country policies and that these countries are unlikely to make them unless they see their own interests as at stake, it is essential that they be full participants in setting the global direction. They are surely likely to do more if they can help shape policy than if it is simply the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations seeking to bring them along.

Is all of this a sufficiently ambitious agenda? Perhaps not; and perhaps political efforts to generate commitments to ambitious if remote targets can be worthwhile as powerful forces for change, as with human rights in eastern Europe. But they must be married to more immediate if less dramatic steps that have real and practical effect.

The writer is Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.