Carbon Talks Stall, At Disastrous Cost to Future Generations


At the end of November, the 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place in Durban, South Africa. The Convention is the forum in which the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and agreed upon. Kyoto is far from an ideal treaty, but it is significant because it is the only treaty to date requiring some advanced industrialized countries to reduce their CO2 emissions.


The meeting in Durban is the last before Kyoto expires at the end of this year. The plan had been to negotiate a successor treaty at the 2010 conference in Copenhagen. This would have given the states that are parties to the convention two years to ratify the treaty. No treaty was agreed upon in Copenhagen or in Cancun the following year, and there is little hope of a last minute breakthrough in Durban.


In order to achieve the UNFCCC’s central objective of avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, huge cuts in global CO2 emissions are required.


The world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, holds that emissions must be on the order of 50% to 85% below 2000 levels by mid-century. With the global population projected to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion, meeting the Panel's target will require that per capita emissions drop sharply and quickly.


There are, however, two pieces of good news. First, the scientific consensus is that such reductions should be technically possible. Second, the Stern Review, an economic study conducted by the United Kingdom, and several other independent analyses by leading economists, project very modest costs associated with these reductions. World economic growth is expected to be only 1% to 2% lower than it would be absent the investments necessary to mitigate climate change (see, for example, both the IPPC and Stern Review links).


Why, then, the impasse in negotiations? Energy consumption is highly correlated with economic growth, and the latter is the engine of human development. Developing countries seek cheap sources of energy to pull billions of people out of desperate poverty; fossil fuels, especially coal, are usually the cheapest. Switching to renewable sources of energy under current market conditions is costly. Increased costs will slow economic growth and will result in slower human development progress. Developing and least developed countries are understandably reticent to take on the economic costs of reducing CO2 emissions.


Given current energy technology, there are two ways for these countries to avoid such costs and for the international community to achieve the necessary reductions. Either the developed world will reduce its emissions so much that their reductions will off-set emissions produced by growth in the developing world, or the developed world will subsidize the implementation of renewable energies in the developing world. But the United States, the leading emitter of the developed world, has thus far refused to get serious about either option.


The voluntary emissions reductions pledged by the U.S. in Copenhagen would achieve only about a 16% reduction against 2000 levels by 2020. In contrast, the European Union has pledged to keep emission 20-30% below an even lower 1990 base line. In the absence of national legislation to reduce emissions, the U.S. may be unable to keep its Copenhagen pledge, which even if met would require massive reductions thereafter to reach 50% to 85% reduction range by 2050. Forget about greater reductions to off-set emissions growth in the developing world.


The future is very much in the hands of U.S. leaders, and by democratic extension, its citizens. We will never know whether later generations will praise or curse us. Sadly, there are few signs at the moment that we should receive anything less than bitter condemnation for the floods, droughts, storms, hunger, and disease that we are on track to bequeath future generations.

Photo Credit: Francesco Cavallari Photography