Dark days for climate change policy

Kitchen utensils

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Dark days for climate change policy”

  1. China signals long-term plans to curb greenhouse gases
    Thu Aug 13, 2009 2:26am EDT

    BEIJING (Reuters) – China will make “controlling greenhouse gas emissions” an important part of its development plans, the government said, as pressure on the world’s top emitter grows ahead of global talks on tackling climate change.

    China’s climate change ambassador, Yu Qingtai, said recently that his country wanted to see output of carbon dioxide peak as soon as possible, a shift away from China’s right to pollute as it develops.

    The cabinet warned baldly of dire consequences from warming.

    “The large amount of greenhouse gases emitted through human activities is the main reason for global warming leading to extreme weather events,” the report on the meeting said. This, it said, was also “threatening the security of water supplies.”

  2. Troubled efforts to produce weak climate change laws are still better than ignoring the issue completely. At the same time, it is sad to see how effectively narrow lobbies have been stifling progress, as well as how the general public has basically failed to engage with the issue.

  3. In order to get public support, people need to realize both how bad unmitigated climate change would be and how far we are from having policies that will prevent it.

    Canada’s situation is similar to that of the world at large. We talk about balancing the environment and the economy, but we are on a path that will eventually devastate both. Indeed, the Jaccard analysis of the Conservative climate change plan is that it won’t reduce absolute emissions at all: just cause their levels to rise more slowly than they would without a plan.

    Our targets are to weak. To avoid dangerous climate change, rich and high emitting states need to cut by a lot more than 20% below 2006 levels by 2020, and 60-70% below 2006 levels by 2050. By 2050, states like Canada probably need to be 95% below current levels.

    We are assuming that technologies – especially carbon capture and storage – will be immediately cheap and effective. We aren’t taking seriously the possibility that future technologies could make the climate change problem worse, as well as better, for instance by encouraging people to use more energy.

    Our plan isn’t good enough to meet even our weak target – even if we cheat. Ways we might cheat include buying bogus credits on international markets (such as those representing ex-Soviet emissions) or by counting contributions to the technology fund as emissions reductions, even when no reductions occur.

    In short, there are a lot of serious problems to be sorted out.

  4. It is unlikely that Britain’s energy situation will ever be as dire as South Africa’s, but that this should even need saying shows how disastrous things are. Something has to give, and it will probably be environmental targets. The government can simply ignore the European pollution rules and its own climate-change targets and keep coal plants open. “A decision between building a new coal plant and letting the lights go out—that’s a no-brainer,” admits one official. But the risk that Britain will simply run out of juice is real. Even if it doesn’t, the liberal energy model for which it has proselytised long and hard is misfiring, and is in urgent need of a tune-up.

  5. The Climate and National Security
    Published: August 17, 2009

    One would think that by now most people would have figured out that climate change represents a grave threat to the planet. One would also have expected from Congress a plausible strategy for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that lie at the root of the problem.

    That has not happened. The House has passed a climate bill that is not as strong as needed, but is a start. There are doubts about whether the Senate will pass any bill, given the reflexive opposition of most Republicans and unfounded fears among many Democrats that rising energy costs will cripple local industries.

    The problem, when it comes to motivating politicians, is that the dangers from global warming — drought, famine, rising seas — appear to be decades off. But the only way to prevent them is with sacrifices in the here and now: with smaller cars, bigger investments in new energy sources, higher electricity bills that will inevitably result once we put a price on carbon.

  6. India says not a disaster if Copenhagen climate talks fail

    NEW DELHI – India’s environment minister said the country will not agree to binding emission targets and that it would not be a disaster if global climate change talks in December fail.

    Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said India could not compromise on its domestic commitments by agreeing to binding emissions cuts, which it has rejected on the grounds that they hamper economic growth.

    “It is possible for us to identify quantifiable commitments that India voluntarily and unilaterally takes as part of its domestic political agenda,” Ramesh said. “The problem arises when you want to transplant these domestic commitments to binding international targets and I think that distance has to be bridged.”

    But “if we don’t bridge it at Copenhagen now let’s not believe that the world will come to a halt,” Ramesh told a gathering of business leaders in the capital New Delhi.

    Developing countries such as India and China say rich countries ought to shoulder the main responsibility for mitigating global warming as they have historically emitted most of the greenhouse gases at the root of the problem.

  7. Climate deal in peril, says Brown

    By Roger Harrabin
    BBC Environment Analyst

    The climate deal planned for Copenhagen in 10 weeks’ time is in grave danger of failure, the prime minister has said.

    Gordon Brown has become the first world leader to offer to go to the Danish capital to help seal the deal.

    He told Newsweek magazine there was no second chance to undo “catastrophic damage” to the environment if “we miss the opportunity to protect the planet”.

    This year’s talks are vital as they aim to produce a successor to the Kyoto Climate Protocol on global warming.

    Mr Brown also warned that consumers would have to pay more for energy in the future, whether the UK opts for high or low carbon energy sources.

  8. India’s shift to cut back emissions raises hope for climate agreement

    Steve Chase and John Ibbitson

    Port of Spain, Ottawa — From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Nov. 27, 2009 10:10PM EST Last updated on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009 10:16AM EST

    Word that India will soon roll out emission reduction targets signals an emerging consensus toward a climate-change agreement next month at Copenhagen, despite the Canadian government’s much-noticed ambivalence.

    India, one of the last holdouts in the fight against global warming, will announce the move within the next few days, French President Nicolas Sarkozy revealed yesterday.

    United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon placed added pressure on Canada yesterday, chiding Ottawa for its inaction on climate change at a Commonwealth meeting of heads of government, in which climate issues are dominating the agenda.

    “Many countries, developed and developing countries, have come out with ambitious targets,” the UN leader said.

    “Canada is going to soon chair the G8 and therefore it is only natural that Canada should come out with ambitious midterm targets as soon as possible,” he said.

  9. ON A cold morning, when the mist rises over the canals that criss-cross the countryside, spreading over the woods and flatlands, the Netherlands does not feel like a sink-hole of pollution. But the ice-encrusted water is brimming with nitrates and phosphates, and the air is clogged with particulate matter.

    The country’s poor environmental record is revealed in a report by Natuur & Milieu, an advocacy group. Rather than conduct its own measurements the group collected data from various official agencies. Its report shows the Dutch lagging behind their European peers for quality of air, soil and surface water, stuck in fossil-fuel dependency, and with exceptionally high carbon emissions.

    On Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, the Netherlands comes 20th out of the 27 EU countries.* It scores particularly badly on the quality of its soil, where those phosphates and nitrates linger in large quantities. They seep into surface water, the quality of which is also below EU guidelines. Emissions of nitrogen monoxide and dioxide are triple the EU average. Carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 15% between 1990 and 2010. Only vast purchases of emission rights keep the Netherlands below its Kyoto targets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *