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Climate change policy is a disaster

by Howard A Latin

04:45 AM Jun 07, 2012

Conventional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions-reduction programmes will prove “too little, too late” by deferring crucial cutbacks too far into the future.

Global warming and climate change are caused by the retention of excess heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Increasing the amount of GHGs in the air will worsen the greenhouse effect by trapping more heat.

One might consequently suppose that the most fundamental climate policies would focus on stabilising and then reducing the atmospheric GHG concentration. This is what a sensible climate policy could do and should do.

Yet, nearly all climate change mitigation plans around the world focus on reducing current or projected GHG discharges by selected percentage rates applied over a few decades – while ignoring the crucial cumulative impacts of persistent GHG discharges on the atmospheric GHG concentration.


These two kinds of pollution control targets may seem to be equivalent, and many people treat them as such. But they are not the same.

A major cause of climate-policy confusion and mistakes is the presence of these two different baselines against which changes in climate conditions can be measured.

In an emissions-reduction approach, the claimed “reductions” come from comparisons with the amount of GHGs that would be discharged by pollution sources in a business-as-usual scenario – that is, if no regulatory controls were imposed.

The alternative baseline compares the atmospheric GHG concentration in a given year against the atmospheric concentration in a past year or projected future year. This comparison addresses a mitigation programme’s annual impact on the atmospheric GHG concentration in comparison to rising, declining or stable atmospheric concentrations in other years.

The Kyoto Protocol, for example, provides that participating developed nations should cut their GHG emissions to roughly 5 per cent below 1990 discharge levels on average, and only the United States among affluent countries has not agreed to meet this minimal emissions-reduction target.

However, even if the nations meet their self-assumed commitments by this year, the treaty member states will be allowed to continue discharging all but approximately 5 to 10 per cent on average of the GHG pollution they were putting out in 1990.

Because virtually all policymakers have been using the business-as-usual baseline rather than the atmospheric concentration baseline, they may consider the small, if not trivial, emissions reductions achieved a worthwhile achievement.


In this light, the Kyoto Protocol clearly should be regarded as a disastrous climate-policy failure that has allowed the rapid growth of persistent GHG discharges which consistently increase the cumulative atmospheric GHG concentration, and hence, its related climate change dangers.

It is an awful mistake because it creates the illusion of emissions-reduction progress, while in reality, it allows a steady increase in the greenhouse effect.

In explaining the dynamic “stocks and flows” properties of the GHG concentration in the atmosphere, Professor John Sterman of MIT observes: “Our mental models suggest that if we stop the growth of emissions, we will stop global warming, and if we cut emissions, we’ll quickly return to a cooler climate.”

But this is a fallacy. He argues: “Rather, it’s more like filling a bathtub. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like the level of water in a bathtub – it grows as long as you pour more water in through the faucet than drains out. Right now, we pour about twice as much CO2 into the atmospheric tub than is removed by natural processes.”

Prof Sterman warns: “Because the drains out of the various bathtubs involved in the climate – atmospheric concentrations, the heat balance of the surface and oceans, ice sheet accumulations, and thermal expansion of the oceans – are small and slow, the emissions we generate in the next few decades will lead to changes that, on any time scale we can contemplate, are irreversible.”

The only arguable benefit of “reducing the increases” in GHG mitigation programmes is that climate change might eventually become even worse if we do absolutely nothing to restrict GHG pollution. But a lesser “bad” does not make a “good” climate policy.


Is there a solution to the current stalemate? A “clean” alternative technology approach that replaces major GHG sources with green technologies is the only realistic way to eliminate the large quantities of persistent GHG discharges.

This focus on creating and disseminating clean GHG-free technologies and processes (sometimes called “decarbonisation”) is also the only viable way that developed nations can meet the economic needs and prosperity goals of developing countries without continuing to degrade global climate conditions.

We need to promote technological research and development activities, clean technology dissemination, international technology transfers and greater fiscal support for innovative GHG-free green technologies – many of which already exist but may not yet be in mature forms that can support widespread diffusion at affordable costs.

These include at least half a dozen types of solar energy processes, wind turbines, wave and tidal power generators, geothermal energy, increased hydropower generation, nuclear energy, hydrogen fuel cells, plasma gasification (which converts garbage and industrial wastes into “clean” biofuels), methane combustion from waste disposal sites, and diverse biofuels made from nearly every biological material.

Twenty years of futile negotiations have proved that we cannot separate emissions-reduction targets from sustainable development goals. We need to accomplish both effective climate change mitigation and increased economic and social development, or else both are certain to fail.

Howard A Latin is Professor of Law and Justice Francis Scholar at the Rutgers University School of Law at Newark. This article is based on a chapter from his latest book, Climate Change Policy Failures: Why Conventional Mitigation Approaches Cannot Succeed.

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