These are depressing times for those seized with the seriousness of the climate change problem. When it comes to legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the signs from around the world are not encouraging.
On Wednesday, the Australian Senate rejected the Labour government’s cap-and-trade plan: the legislative consequence of Kevin Rudd’s victory and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. This is despite how the plan included significant giveaways of permits for heavily affected industries, primarily Australia’s massive coal sector. In three months, the government can try re-introducing the plan. If it fails again, they can request an election and seek a renewed mandate. As I noted before, Australia’s hugely high per-capita emissions, major coal exports, and lack of effective legislative action are especially startling when you realize that Australia is probably the rich country with the most to lose from climate change. Their agricultural system is under enough strain from water scarcity already, not to mention when climate change increases temperatures, changes patterns of precipitation, boosts evaporation rates, and depletes summer snowcap.
International efforts are also looking shaky. Game theorists and foreign affairs commenters are projecting failure. India continues to play an obstructionist role. While it’s not impossible that the UNFCCC negotiations will eventually produce an improved successor to the Kyoto Protocol, it seems less and less likely that they will be able to do so at this year’s negotiations in Copenhagen.
Of course, things remain stalled in North America. The compromise (some say compromised) Waxman-Markey bill faces a tough fight in the US Senate. If it makes it through at all, there is a good chance that it will be in an even more distorted and less effective form, with more goodies for destructive but influential industries like coal and corn ethanol. Meanwhile, Canada’s cap-and-trade regulations remain in limbo, with details unannounced. Even if they do get announced and implemented, the plan is so weak and offers so many avenues for avoiding emission reductions that it is unlikely to have a significant effect for at least a few years. By allowing firms to invest in a technology fund (which gets recycled back to them) rather than reduce emissions or buy permits from those who do, the system strips a lot of the effectiveness out of a carbon price. Given the heavy slant of the technology fund towards carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, this represents yet another big gamble that such systems will prove cheap, safe, and effective. If not, a lot of time will have been lost for implementing safer strategies like improving energy efficiency and deploying renewables.
Even with significant improvements over present efforts, the world is not on track to avoid catastrophic climate change. As Stephen Chu and others have highlighted, there are powerful positive feedback effects that will kick in after some degree of human-induced warming. If that happens, it will be too late to prevent further warming by reducing our emissions. To avoid such a catastrophic outcome, both strong domestic actions and international cooperation are required. So far, there is no sign that the world as a whole is taking the issue seriously enough for those to be plausible possibilities.