effects and causes of
As we all know, CO2 is a "greenhouse gas" that serves as a kind of natural thermostat
for the planet. When the amount of CO2
in the air increases, we can expect, in time, a change in the global
climate, in the direction of warmer average surface temperatures.
CO2 is one of a number of greenhouse
gases that also include water vapor (H2O),
methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O),
the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons
(PFCs), and sulfur hexaflouride (SF6).
Other components of the atmosphere also play an indirect role: a
variety of gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx),
and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can affect the concentration
of certain greenhouse gases through chemical reactions. The net
cooling affect exerted by very fine particles in the air – called aerosols – and especially those containing sulfur, further
complicates the relationship between human activities and climate.
Thus, in the short run, reducing sulfur emissions, for example,
by restricting the use of sulfurous coal, might do the climate more
harm than good, since sulfur particles and CO2
in coal smoke have opposing effects on the temperature of the air.
Estimates vary as to the climatic consequence of doubling the pre-industrial
concentration of CO2, but almost
all climate researchers conclude that the average temperature, worldwide,
will rise between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Centigrade, or about 3 to
9°F. Interestingly, in spite of extensive research, this range
of estimates in the projected increase has not narrowed in more
than a decade. While our understanding of the climate system has
expanded dramatically in recent years, so has our appreciation for
the complexity of predicting long-term climate in more than the
most general terms.
Evidence has mounted that the ever-increasing concentration of
CO2 is most likely the result of
our own activities – principally the burning of fossil fuels, mainly
coal and oil, and deforestation. It now seems almost certain that
in the absence of global policy restraints, we will eventually increase
the amount of CO2 in the air above
550 ppmv before the end of the 21st century, which is a far richer
mixture than any the Earth has known in at least the last 200,000
While meteorologists and other scientists had long been aware of
the prospects for global greenhouse warming, the gravity of impending
climate change was largely unknown outside of scientific circles
until about ten years ago. In 1988 things changed. A combination
of political and weather events in that year conspired to lift the
issue out of the halls of academia and into the public consciousness.
Since that time there has been continued open debate about the unrestrained
accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The birth of the FCCC
In 1990 the United Nations initiated a set of international discussions
intended to lead to an international response to these concerns.
What first came out of them was a document called the Framework
Convention (i.e., an international agreement) on Climate
Change (FCCC). The FCCC was formalized and signed by 155 nations
at the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June of 1992.
As of June 1999 it had been endorsed by 179 parties, including most
of the 185 member nations of the UN, and all the major greenhouse-gas-emitting
countries of the world.
The FCCC is comprised of twenty-seven Articles, covering matters
which range from lofty principles to more mundane definitions. The
ultimate objective, underlined here, is set forth in Article 2:
The ultimate objective of the Convention
and any related legal instruments that the Convention of the Parties
may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant
provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas
concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous
anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
The FCCC is a political response to a highly complex social and
scientific problem, which differs in fundamental ways from other
environmental issues with which policy makers are familiar, such
as local and regional air or water pollution. One of the more significant
of these differences is the complex way that the quantity of greenhouse
gases that are emitted each year is related to the total amount
that remains in the air.
Although the ultimate objective of the Convention was stated in
terms of concentrations, the target ceiling was defined only
qualitatively, in terms of "the level that would prevent dangerous
anthropogenic interference with the climate system." More quantitative
goals were attached to emissions of CO2.
These proposed restrictions applied only to what were called the
Annex I nations: the developed countries and those in economic
transition (see Box below). By the terms of the FCCC, the more economically
able nations and those with economies in transition were to strive
to reduce emissions to 1990 levels, in the year 2000. No attempt
was made to link the proposed reductions to any specific ceiling
on concentrations. As the year 2000 draws near, it appears that
only nations with special circumstances, such as the economies in
transition (whose restructuring and economic malaise has reduced
emissions without need for climate policy intervention) and a handful
of other nations such as the reunified Germany (which shut down
many inefficient facilities in the East) and the United Kingdom
(which underwent a conversion from coal to North Sea gas), will
meet the year 2000 goal.
Emissions vs. concentrations
The climate change issue – like that of stratospheric ozone and
harmful ultraviolet radiation – has to do with the concentration
of minor chemical constituents of the atmosphere: in this instance,
principally CO2, CH4,
N2O, and CFCs. In the case of more
familiar pollutants in the air, such as carbon monoxide or sulfur
dioxide, a concern about concentrations is wholly equivalent to
a concern about emissions: that is, how much is there at any place
and time is a good indication of how much is being added.
The climate problem is different, due to the fact that the gases
involved, once released to the air, remain there for such a long
time. The amount of CO2 – the most
important of the greenhouse gases released by human activities – is the cumulative result of human activities over the last several
hundred years. In the short run, how much is added each year makes
but a modest incremental difference in concentration. Moreover,
because of its long residence time, the CO2
that we release into the air is ultimately circulated throughout
the global atmosphere: what anyone adds (or added, long ago) affects
everyone, everywhere else. Nor is there much that can currently
be done, beyond waiting for carbon dioxide to be slowly taken up
by plants, accumulated in soils, dissolved in the waters of the
oceans, or, in the very long run, deposited in rocks.
Implications for national and international
These features of carbon dioxide have important policy implications.
- First, no single year's emissions—or reductions in emission—matter that much. It is the accumulated total that affects the
- Second, while some nations indeed contribute more than others,
no single country's emissions are solely responsible for the build-up.
Nor by acting alone, can any country fix the problem.
- Third, regardless of what course the nations of the world
follow, total annual global emissions, which have been rising throughout
the last 300 years, must be forced to peak and then decline, if
successively higher and higher concentrations are to be avoided.
But, importantly, this does not mean that total emissions must decline
immediately; nor does it mean that fossil fuel use need ever decline.
The grand challenge of the next century will be in finding ways
to simultaneously preserve and improve the quality of life in both
developed and developing nations. Ultimately, global emissions—and not merely those of the developed countries—must decline.
If, for example, the world is to avoid CO2
concentrations that exceed 550 ppmv, its inhabitants must find ways
to reduce average global emissions, per person, to 1990 levels or
lower, by the end of the twenty-first century.
The Kyoto negotiations created a more specific framework for reducing,
or mitigating, greenhouse gas emissions. Country-by-country
emissions reductions, averaging 5.2 percent, were established as
goals for the Annex I nations. Other definitions and clarifications
were also included. It specified the six greenhouse gases – CO2,
HFCs, PFCs, and SF6 – that were
targeted for reduction, and bundled their climatic impacts together
in terms of "CO2 equivalent emissions."
It forestalled compliance for the stipulated Annex I reductions
until a bounded period of commitment a decade in the future, from
2008 to 2012. To help control costs it established the principle
of emissions trading for Annex I nations, a mechanism for actions
implemented jointly, and a "Clean Development Mechanism," which
could create emissions credits in participating non-Annex
The rules by which these principles will be implemented were left,
however, for future negotiations. Like the Rio FCCC, the Kyoto Protocol
established no penalties for non-compliance. And like the original
FCCC, emission reduction goals were established for only a limited
period, and with no reference to a specified ceiling in terms of
global concentrations in parts per million.
Much work remains to be done in Bonn (when the Fifth Conference
of the Parties will be held, in 1999) and at similar conferences
to follow, if the principles of Kyoto are to be realized. The agreement
framed in Kyoto will not become binding until the parties return
to the United Nations with instruments of ratification. None of
the major emitters, including the United States, has as yet ratified
the agreement. Given concerns expressed in the U.S. Senate, which
must ratify the Protocol if this country is to participate, the
prospects for the agreement ever entering into force are as yet
uncertain. But even if Kyoto's goals were fully met, it would still
be no more than a start in terms of what is ultimately needed to
stem the continuing increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.
To illustrate this point, we show in Figure
1 the potential effect of the Kyoto Protocol on first the amount
of CO2 that is emitted, each year,
and then on the resulting concentration, through the next 100 years,
based on modeled calculations at Battelle. The black line in each
of the two diagrams is an IPCC projection of possible future emissions
and concentrations if no concerted action is taken to reduce them.
The blue lines, in each case, show our calculations of how emissions
and concentrations would be affected were the Annex I nations to
abide by the Kyoto Protocol, with the further assumption that the
Protocol – which establishes emissions objectives for only five
years, 2008 to 2012 – is renewed to apply throughout the remaining
eighty-eight years of the 21st century. In addition, we assume that
the reductions in Annex I nations do not lead to any increases in the emissions in other countries: that is, reduced oil demand
and reduced oil prices do nothing to stimulate fossil fuel use and
emissions in non-Annex I nations. The "extended Kyoto Protocol,"
as we have defined it, cuts global emissions by roughly 15 percent
– or about two and a half billion metric tons (called "tonnes,"
each equal to 2200 lbs) of carbon per year – by the end of the century.
But despite the reductions on the part of Annex I nations, total
global emissions continue to rise, about as steeply as before, throughout
Concentrations will of course also be affected. By the end of the
next century, in the year 2100, the amount of CO2 in the air drops about 50 ppmv below the unencumbered IPCC projection.
But as with emissions, the concentration still continues to climb.
Furthermore, the date when the concentration first exceeds 550 ppmv – a doubling of the pre-industrial value – is postponed by less
than a decade.
It is clear that the Kyoto Protocol, even if extended throughout
the next century, is highly unlikely to achieve the underlying goal
of the FCCC.
The relationship between the amount of CO2
we release each year and the eventual concentration in the air around
us is not a simple one. Almost all of Nature has a hand in the game.
Complex interactions among the air and oceans and soil and living
things can both add to and subtract from the carbon we have added
to the air. Some natural reservoirs, like the deep oceans, can absorb
and hold carbon from the air for hundreds of thousands of years;
others, like the trees, give much of it back in a matter of months.
Almost all of these processes depend on the temperature, which is
affected by the CO2 we emit, and
some are affected directly by CO2
Workable strategies for stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
must nevertheless address both emissions and concentrations, and
link them, reliably, to each other. Will negotiated emission reductions
of certain amounts (as in the Kyoto Protocol) hold concentrations
within a specified ceiling? What should that ceiling be, in ppmv?
Are there efficient (i.e., least painful to all involved) emission
paths to get there?
Some possible emission paths
Considerable effort has gone into developing emissions paths (or
profiles) that are consistent with alternative concentration
ceilings. But, despite the wide variety of paths that have been
considered – immediate cutbacks on the part of all or some nations
versus more tailored or tapered ones – all share a number of common
characteristics. Any that endeavor to meet ceilings of 450 ppmv
or higher allow global emissions to continue their present rise
for some period before peaking and eventually turning downward.
Three of these possible emissions paths, and their resultant concentration
ceilings, are shown in Figure 2, where
they are also compared with the "business as usual" emission trajectory
that was projected by the IPCC, and its modification by the (extended)
Kyoto Pact. Table 1 uses the same emission profiles to illustrate
how CO2 emissions would need to
be reduced, and when, to remain within different concentration ceilings.
The Kyoto Protocol trajectory produces more than enough emissions
reductions to satisfy the requirements, for a time, of all but the
most stringent of the emission paths that are shown. However, to
return CO2 concentrations
to 350 ppmv – approximately the amount in the air in 1990 – more
draconian measures are needed, for global (not just Annex
I) emissions must begin to drop, and continue to drop rapidly toward
zero, beginning a scant six years from now, in 2005. Relaxing the
allowable ceiling to 450 ppmv forestalls that day by an additional
six years, to 2011, when emissions must begin to decline. Were a
doubled CO2 (550 ppmv) a tolerable
ceiling, the (extended) Kyoto Protocol would suffice until about
2035, after which emissions must again begin to drop. But in that
case the Protocol initially requires more emissions mitigation than
is needed for that concentration ceiling, raising questions about
the balance between costs and benefits, while ultimately proving
inadequate to stabilize concentrations.
But in any of these cases, reversing the direction of the global
emissions curve from upward to downward (in 2005, for example, to
meet a 350 ppmv ceiling in global concentration) will never happen
under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol alone. Achieving this historic
turn of events will require substantial reductions in carbon emissions
by both the major industrialized and industrializing countries,
including the United States and other developed nations, as well
as China, India, and Russia. Even if the emissions of Annex I nations
were reduced to zero, which is a most unlikely scenario, it would
forestall the necessity for substantial mitigation by non-Annex
I countries for only forty years.
As we should expect, the 550-ppmv ceiling referred to in
Figure 2 eases the task of emissions mitigation
when compared to more stringent targets. The Kyoto Protocol is sufficient
to keep global emissions within the bounds of the associated path
until the about the year 2035. In fact, it provides more mitigation
than is called for. But after the year 2035, simply renewing the
Kyoto Protocol will not suffice. To stabilize the atmospheric concentration
at 550 ppmv requires that after 2035, global emissions
of CO2 must begin to decline.
If higher concentration ceilings, such as 650 or 750 ppmv (about
double the present concentration), are considered, the required
emissions mitigation is, of course, relaxed even more. In fact,
if one believes that 650 ppmv or 750 ppmv were safe and responsible
ceilings, then any of the cuts prescribed in the Kyoto Protocol
would probably be premature. Ultimately, present actions must be
based on a balance between potential risks associated with different
concentration ceilings and the costs of different levels of stringency
The Fossil In Our Future
Energy is at the heart of the climate issue. Most of the carbon
dioxide that our own activities add to the air comes from fossil
fuels, which are the principal provider of energy services for the
whole world. Without policy intervention things will likely continue
that way, for fossil fuel energy is convenient, cheap, and abundant.
Real U.S. oil prices (adjusted for inflation) were in 1998 at their
lowest levels since the second World War. And energy use is growing
rapidly, especially in developing nations.
The bad news is what is left behind when carbon fuels are burned.
Global carbon emissions increase every year, with no obvious natural
end in sight, for there is little if any chance that the world will
run out of fossil fuels before global warming could become serious.
Conventional oil and gas resources may indeed be limited, but they
are not the major concern, for they make up but the "tip of the
iceberg" in terms of the total fossil fuel inventory on the planet.
Were we to burn all conventional oil and gas resources in the course
of the 21st century, the global concentration of CO2
would not rise above 450 ppmv, and there would probably be no need
for an IPCC, an FCCC, or this review in CONSEQUENCES. The real threat
to future climate lies in the vast stores of other fossil
fuels, and particularly coal and "unconventional" oil (such as shale)
and gas. When coal and unconventional oil and gas are included,
the global fossil fuel inventory is adequate to fuel the world's
economies for centuries to come. And in the process, to load the
atmosphere with enough carbon to drive CO2
concentrations to at least 1100 ppmv, or more than four times the
If the nations of the world are to keep CO2
from reaching a concentration above 750 ppmv, the long-rising trend
in CO2 emissions must be made to
peak and then decline sometime in the twenty-first century. But
it is important to note that this need not require fossil fuel use
to peak and decline in that period, if there were practical methods
to limit the carbon that fossil fuels emit. The development of carbon
capture and storage (or "sequestration") technology, for example,
would allow a continued expansion of fossil fuel use, even as fossil
fuel CO2 emissions declined.
Outside the technology box
Carbon capture and sequestration holds great promise as an additional
tool for controlling carbon emissions and limiting the cost of large-scale
emissions mitigation. Many methods are potentially available, including
capture by "scrubbing," as is now done for sulfur, or removal and
storage of carbon from the fuel before combustion; possible biological
methods include storage in soils or plants. A wide range of repositories
for long-term storage of carbon have been considered, including
depleted oil and gas wells, coal seams, and the deep ocean. In all,
the notion of capture and sequestration is more like a tool box
than a single implement, and none of the tools in the set has been
applied to a problem of comparable magnitude to the task which looms
A great deal more research is needed before any attempt at large
scale application can be made. That research must answer such questions
as: How permanent are potential storage repositories? Would the
large scale sequestration of carbon cause other environmental problems?
How expensive will these technologies prove to be? How do we solve
technical problems for handling and storing commodities such as
carbon and hydrogen? Answering these questions will be a daunting
challenge for the biological, material, and engineering sciences.
Two facts make these technologies and their associated science
particularly important. First, given the enormous emissions mitigation
challenge that lies ahead in the second half of the next century,
every available approach will be needed to control costs. And second,
these technologies, and particularly those associated with the biological
sciences, offer the only hope presently available, nascent as it
is, for lowering the concentration of CO2
in the atmosphere, should that prove necessary.
The steeply-increasing carbon emissions that are projected for
the future by the IPCC (as shown in Figures 1
and 2) are commonly used in economic studies
and projections. They are also predicated on a wide range of assumptions,
not the least of which are those concerning future energy technology.
Among these technology assumptions are significant improvements
in energy efficiency.
For example, the IPCC assumes that 100 years from now, renewable
and nuclear energy technologies will have improved to the point
where they provide more than 75 percent of all electric power, compared
with but 24 percent (mostly from nuclear and hydroelectric generation)
in 1990. In addition, in the same time span the scale of non-carbon
technologies – such as biomass, nuclear, solar, and wind power – is assumed to grow to almost twice the size of the entire global
energy system in 1990. End-use energy technologies also improve.
Energy consumed per unit of economic activity declines to 1/3 of
Needless to say, these assumptions pose a large technological challenge.
For purposes of illustration, we have recalculated the IPCC projections
of future CO2 emissions under the
assumption that the world’s average energy technology does not
advance beyond 1990 levels. Such a turn of events is hardly possible,
but it allows us to see more clearly the amount of technological
change that is assumed in the IPCC reference case.
The heavy reliance that was placed on presumed technological advances
is evident in Figure 3, for both emissions
and atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
Even with these presumed advances, however, the IPCC projection
leads to an atmospheric concentration in the year 2100 of more than
700 ppmv, which is two and a half times the pre-industrial level
of about 275 ppmv.
If we are to stabilize the amount of CO2 in the air, the world's energy system will need to shift more deliberately
to non-carbon-emitting technologies. A transition from the present
carbon-emitting energy technology to an alternative non-carbon technology
will entail costs. The degree of sacrifice – that is, the cost of
carbon emissions mitigation – will depend primarily on five factors:
1. The permitted ceiling for global CO2
2. The extent of participation among the world’s nations;
3. The degree of flexibility as to where and when net
emissions mitigation can be undertaken;
4. The non-carbon-emitting-technology alternatives
that become available; and
5. The availability of carbon sinks and carbon-removing
Each of these factors can exert a truly profound effect on the
cost to the world of stabilizing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Minimizing costs is particularly important. When the costs of reducing
carbon emissions are perceived to be high, responsible actions are
almost inevitably delayed – and particularly so when the threat
that is posed lies in the future. Higher costs mean diverting more
resources from other worthy goals, such as improving health, providing
education, reversing the effects of past pollution, and raising
the material standard of living.
If the concentration of greenhouse gases is to be stabilized, there
are at least two pre-conditions that must be met. The first is a
credible commitment to a future (in terms of energy usage) that
is different from the past. The second is a strategy for controlling
the costs of making so profound a change. If either of these fails
to come about, controlling the amount of carbon in the air will
The need for a policy commitment
In the absence of a widely accepted policy that the unrestrained
release of carbon to the atmosphere can no longer be allowed, and
that global net CO2 emissions
(that is, the difference between what is added to the air and what
it soon loses) must eventually decline — nothing will happen. Nor
can the market alone be counted on to bring these goals about. A
technology strategy which works on the presumption that market forces
are capable, by themselves, of carrying us into a bright new carbon-free
energy future ignores the fact that climate is an un-priced commodity.
As such, its value can never be fully incorporated in the marketplace.
The form of that commitment remains for the future to disclose.
It may grow out of an expanded and extended Kyoto protocol, or it
may require new political and institutional mechanisms. But, whatever
the form, a policy commitment – one that engages all of the major
emitting nations of the world, one that controls costs, and one
that is structured to encompass the long-term nature of climate
change – is an essential element in "solving" the climate problem.
This is not to say that the encouragement of advanced, non-carbon,
energy technology development will not help to reduce the growth
of CO2 emissions. Or that technological
change cannot benefit both the production and consumption of fossil
and non-fossil fuels. But unless we find and harness non-carbon
emitting energy technologies (that are also cost competitive) at
a faster rate than reference scenarios assume, carbon emissions
will not peak, and we will not be able to stabilize their concentration
in the atmosphere. These reference scenarios, moreover, tend to
Similarly, policy alone will not be enough. A policy which controls
emissions without controlling costs, cannot be sustained.
Controlling the costs of mitigation
Global greenhouse warming is a long term problem and thus an intergenerational
one. Our own actions, and those of our predecessors, around the
world, have set natural processes in motion that will inexorably
alter the climate in which we and our descendants will live.
Nor are there any quick ways currently available to erase what
we have done. The degree to which we can alter the concentration
of CO2 in the air is highly limited,
over even a decade. It will take many tens of years to make any
significant change. Thus, the actions we take this year, or next,
to help solve the problem will affect our descendants far more than
ourselves, and maybe not ourselves at all. The mitigation of carbon
emissions calls largely on altruism. And, while there is ample evidence
of altruism in the world, it is ever in short supply, given the
other worthy causes that call for our attention and sacrifice.
The hope of improved energy technology
Technology is a major determinant of mitigation costs. Depending
on which technologies become available – and particularly in the
next twenty-five years – the minimum cost of stabilizing CO2 in the atmosphere can vary by literally trillions of dollars – by
more than the annual gross domestic product of the U.S.A.
We can explore how energy technology might affect the costs of
stabilizing CO2 by applying two
different assumptions about technology to the projections of the
IPCC. These are:
1. 1990 Technology—Technologies are frozen at
1990 levels. No energy technology improvements are allowed, but
other assumptions used by the IPCC regarding population and economic
growth, energy resource availability, and the cost of energy supply
2. Reference Technological Progress—This is the
reference adopted by the IPCC in making their projections of likely
CO2 emissions, in which technology
proceeds briskly, but incrementally. Significant energy technology
improvements are assumed, in both fossil and non-fossil energy technologies,
over the course of the coming century. Renewable energy forms, such
as hydro, biomass, solar and wind power, become cost competitive
and replace fossil fuels as the dominant mode of electric power
generation by the year 2100. Nuclear power technology is cost effective
and utilized globally. End-use energy applications improve at the
rate of one percent per year on average, reducing the demand for
energy service in the year 2100 by two thirds from what it would
have been with 1990 technologies. It is this set of technological
change assumptions which in Figure 3 leads
to a CO2 concentration of more than
Each of these two technology regimes, were all else the same, would
result in a different CO2 emissions
profile. But to stabilize CO2 in
the atmosphere, however, would require, in addition, an assumed
For purposes of illustration, and to get an idea of the minimum
costs involved in either of the two technology options, we assume
that mitigation is undertaken wherever and whenever it is cheapest
to do so. For the moment we will ignore how this ideal might be
realized, although a global carbon tax regime or a global allocation
of tradable emission permits would help in this regard. The real
world, of course, will never deliver a minimum cost solution. A
multitude of different inefficient policy regimes are possible,
and each has its own, quite-different cost. Since we have no way
of predicting which road the world will ultimately follow, we shall
use, for our purposes here, the single, cost-effective one and take
it as a point of reference.
The value of technology
In Figure 4 we compare the costs of stabilizing
the atmosphere at four different concentrations – 450, 550, 650,
and 750 ppmv of CO2 – based on the
global emissions trajectories shown in Table
1 and Figure 2, under the two technology
assumptions that were described above.
For the reasons noted earlier, the cost estimates shown in Figure
4 should be seen as a lower bound on what would be experienced
in reality. But the patterns are revealing. The costs of stabilizing
the concentration at 550 ppmv with 1990 Technologies and with IPCC
Reference Technological Progress differ by 1200 percent,
or eleven trillion dollars. This is more than 2 percent of the world’s
Gross Domestic Product for the next century, and more than the total
amount that developed nations spend on all other forms of environmental
Technology lowers costs by reducing the amount that fossil fuel
emissions needs to be cut back. Technology makes policy more powerful,
because it reduces the required level of sacrifice. And while different
economic models, even with the same technology and policy assumptions,
yield different estimates of costs, they all confirm the overarching
importance of energy technology in fixing the price of meeting any
CO2 concentration ceiling.
Toward A Strategy
As we have said before, stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse
gases will not be possible without (1) a clear commitment by most
of the world's major emitting nations that the future will be different
than the past – that is, that emissions will eventually decline;
and (2) the development of satisfactory mechanisms for controlling
costs. For a given technology, the nature of policy instruments
that are applied has a major influence on the actual cost of channeling
future energy developments. But the choice of technology has an
equally strong influence on the potential cost.
As negotiators meet in future UN Conferences of the Parties, controlling
the cost of emissions mitigation will continue to be one of the
major challenges confronting them. Identifying a mechanism that
would support the needed research and encourage and expedite the
development and deployment of technology to limit carbon emissions
and remove carbon from the atmosphere could make that task far simpler.
It will not be easy. Expenditures on energy research and development,
around the world, have been in decline for more than a decade. In
the U.S. they have fallen to the point where a fee of one dollar
per tonne of carbon emitted – which amounts to only a quarter of
a cent per gallon of gasoline at the pump – would raise enough revenue
to increase energy research and development by fully 50 percent.
While technology has not been a major feature of the existing negotiations,
it could be a major part of the solution to the climate change problem.
Finding a way to accelerate the development and deployment of new
technologies may not sound glamorous or heroic, but it could change
the whole complexion of the carbon and climate dilemma.
What are the incentives for investing more, and trying harder?
We need remember that finding a way to develop a robust energy and
carbon technology strategy could be worth not millions, or billions,
but trillions of dollars in addressing what may prove to be the
central environmental problem of the twenty-first century.