Saving the planet will be difficult, but do not despair

How the burden of climate-change adjustment might be shared between rich and emerging nations is at the heart of current debate. With strategy and technology, Philip Stephens believes, the challenge is manageable.

The shortest distance in the discourse about climate change is that between denial and despair. The head wrested from the sand soon becomes the head in the hands. “Nothing needs doing” slides effortlessly into “nothing can be done”.

For all the accumulated evidence to the contrary, there are still a determined few who see global warming as the invention of do-gooders and of scientists who want to be soothsayers. The small band of sceptics seizes on the inevitable imprecision of the effort to predict the future relationship between greenhouse gases and changes in temperature as an excuse to ignore the overwhelming weight of scientific knowledge.

The tactic is familiar, once used to grim effect by those who sought to refute the link between smoking and cancer – if you cannot prove everything, you cannot prove anything. This is a cynical thought perhaps, but I often wonder whether it is entirely coincidental that so many of the climate-change sceptics are of a sufficient age to be sure they will be gone before they can be proved wrong.

Denial is a still a big problem, as demonstrated by the latest survey of global attitudes from the Washington-based Pew Research Center. The good news is that majorities in 14 of the 24 countries covered by this annual poll see global warming as a very serious problem. The bad news is that those countries with the smallest concerned majorities are the ones that are also contributing most to the stock of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

Less than half – 42% – of people in the United States think the rising temperature of the planet is a serious problem. In China, the figure is a mere 24%. That compares with figures of 70% and above in Japan, France, Tanzania and Turkey and 92% in Brazil. That for Germany, surprisingly, is only 61% and for Britain, less surprisingly, 56%.

The state of opinion in the world’s two worst polluters is worrying. In both the United States and China, people are less concerned about climate change than they were a year ago. The proportion in China has almost halved from the previous 42%.

These two nations – one the largest per capita emitter, the other now pumping out the most carbon dioxide overall – must be at the forefront of any serious global effort to slow the rate of climate change.

Just as worryingly, they each seem to blame the other. Four in 10 Americans, Pew records, think China is the villain, compared with less than a quarter who think their own gas-guzzling habits may be the main reason for the rising concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. Slightly more than a quarter of Chinese think the United States is to blame, while fractionally under 10% believe their own country is most at fault.

Which takes us to despair. This comes in two guises. The first is political short-termism that says there are too many immediate problems to handle. We have seen that happening since oil prices have climbed from the lower to the higher stratosphere.

A year or so ago, the political conversation in most developed economies was how to reduce the amount of carbon released into the skies. Carbon-free was cool. Now the priority is to persuade Saudi Arabia to get more hydrocarbons out of the ground. How, the politicians plead, can we tell voters to make sacrifices when the prices of energy and food are so high? Being green goes out of fashion when times are tough.

Soaring oil prices do have some upside. Concerned Americans can celebrate the demise of General Motors’ Hummer division. Britain is witnessing a slump in sales of so-called 4x4s – the large off-road vehicles beloved by many of London’s ostentatious rich.

It can scarcely make sense, though, that the cost of a modest fall in greenhouse gas emissions is another huge transfer of wealth to a handful of oil-producing nations. In any event, what are a few gallons saved from a switch to less vulgar modes of transport against the exponential expansion of the carbon footprint of the developing countries?

The Chinese are adding two new coal-fired generating stations every week. And what about those projections showing that, within 20 years or so, new car sales in China will reach 18 million a year, against fewer than a million at the turn of the century? This before we consider the voracious appetite for fossil fuels in that other vast, rising economy, India.

Which brings us to despair in its second guise: it is all too difficult. The climate can be stabilised only if everyone moves simultaneously towards a low-carbon economy. If the United States is not ready to curb its profligacy and China is unwilling to risk its future growth, what hope is there of a global compact to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2050?

The answer is that, yes, it is difficult but, yes too, it is possible. Those who insist otherwise would do well to read a new study [Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change, London School of Economics] by a group of experts led by the British economist Nicholas Stern.

Written in the sober style of the original Stern Review on the economics of climate change — prepared for the British government in 2006 — this latest short report forsakes magic solutions. Instead it breaks down the challenge into its component parts and offers plausible responses in the form of market mechanisms, technological advances and behavioural changes. Its central conclusion is the antidote to despair: “The challenge is far-reaching, comprehensive, and global; but it is manageable”.

In particular the report maps a path to settle the argument at the heart of the present stand-off: how the burden of adjustment might be shared between rich and emerging nations.

Ceilings on the developed economies – responsible for the vast proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere – should bite immediately, it says. But a new international trading system would not impose binding targets on developing countries until 2020. In the interim, poorer nations would be able to sell emission reduction certificates to finance the eventual shrinking of their own carbon footprint.

I doubt the strategy is perfect. But alongside the technological opportunities, it demonstrates that the problem is tractable. Both major candidates in the United States presidential election support carbon trading. Saving the planet, an American friend tells me, could yet become a US mission, uniting entrepreneurs looking for profits with evangelical Christians demanding better stewardship of the planet.

As for China, for now it may have other priorities, but I am not sure that it wants to grow rich in a world getting unbearably warmer.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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