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Domestic and international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are dead in the water. Many will think this is bad news. I don't. Here's why. Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol and U.S. cap-and-trade legislation focus solely on reducing CO2 emissions. But these are symbolic acts, mere posturing, while doing little or nothing to achieve their stated goals. Stubborn reliance on this approach is now the main barrier to an effective climate policy.

What’s Next for Climate Change?

Domestic and international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are dead in the water. Many will think this is bad news. I don’t. Here’s why.

Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol and U.S. cap-and-trade legislation focus solely on reducing CO2 emissions. But these are symbolic acts, mere posturing, while doing little or nothing to achieve their stated goals. Stubborn reliance on this approach is now the main barrier to an effective climate policy.

The 1,200-page American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, known as Waxman-Markey, is an example. It sets an ambitious target of reducing total U.S. greenhouse emissions 83 percent by the year 2050. In 2005, the year chosen as the baseline, the U.S. emitted about 6 billion tons of CO2. An 83 percent reduction by 2050 means that U.S. emissions must be just over one billion tons.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Steve Hayward puts this in context. He writes that the U.S. last emitted one billion tons of CO2 in 1910, when our population was 92 million and total GDP (in 2008 dollars) about $572 billion. (2008 GDP was $14.2 trillion.) In order to reach the target, per-capita CO2 emissions will have to be no more than 2.4 tons. The last time U.S. citizens emitted this low level of carbon was 1875. These kinds of reductions are so absurd they will not even be seriously attempted.

Current U.S. per-capita CO2 emissions are 20.7 tons. France and Switzerland have the lowest at 6.59 and 6.13 tons, respectively. This is more than twice the level the U.S. must achieve to reach the Waxman-Markey target. These numbers are low because France generates 79 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Hydropower meets more than half of Switzerland’s energy needs with nuclear contributing another 39 percent.

Green activists deserve much of the blame for all this. Alarmist rhetoric combined with demands that politicians support policies whose costs far outweigh the benefits have profound consequences. Walter Mead sums up: “The climate change movement…adopted…unrealistic and unreachable political goal, and sought to stampede world opinion through misleading and exaggerated statements…. Foundation staff, activists and…journalists cocooned themselves in an echo chamber of comfortable group-think, …they thought they were making progress when actually they were…digging themselves into an ever-deeper hole.”

Adding to the problem are questions about the reputation of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; it’s clearly not an honest broker regarding the science of climate change. Shoddy work includes irresponsible, inaccurate claims that 80 percent of Himalayan glaciers will vanish by 2035 and bogus predictions of increased hurricane damage. Also, multiple revelations of an advocacy driven agenda trumping honest science destroys credibility.

Climate change is not a pollution problem. It is an energy use problem. Since economic activity drives growth in CO2 emissions, and governments are loath to pursue policies that limit the economic opportunities of its citizens, efforts to reduce carbon emissions must come through either improvement in energy efficiency or decarbonisation of our energy supply.

Fortunately, some policy entrepreneurs are proposing alternatives. They follow Gwyn Prins, of the London School of Economics, who observes: “Worthwhile policy builds upon what we know works and upon what is feasible rather than trying to deploy never-before implemented policies through complex institutions requiring a hitherto unprecedented and never achieved degree of global political alignment.”

Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University writes in Nature: “A successful climate policy regime will match short-term costs with the real potential of short-term gains. These gains can come from reducing vulnerabilities to climate impacts, and increasing security and wealth generation from energy-technology innovation. Both paths call on the government to do things that most people see as appropriate: to provide public goods and promote innovation. Both paths also allow climate change to be understood not as impending doom that requires deep sacrifice to ensure survival, but as an opportunity to continually improve society.”

Ultimately, such ideas will break the status quo inertia.

Pete Geddes is Executive Vice President of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE), based in Bozeman, MT. Contact him at pgeddes@free-eco.org.

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