Thursday, June 26, 2008

Approaches To Global Warming

Bjorn Lomborg, who seems to be trotted out these days as an alternative to the largely discredited "global warming deniers", has an editorial in the Times opposing "cap and trade" carbon policies. (I'm not arguing that Lomborg doesn't make valid (sometimes amusing) points on global warming, or that "cap and trade" is an ideal solution. But whatever his intention, Lomborg has won himself a lot of favor with the "do nothing" crowd.)
Politicians favor the cap-and-trade system because it is an indirect tax that disguises the true costs of reducing carbon emissions. It also gives lawmakers an opportunity to control the number and distribution of emissions allowances, and the flow of billions of dollars of subsidies and sweeteners.

Many people believe that everyone has a moral obligation to ask how we can best combat climate change. Attempts to curb carbon emissions along the lines of the bill now pending are a poor answer compared with other options.
Okay, that's fair. So what are the other, superior options?
The answer is to dramatically increase research and development so that solar panels become cheaper than fossil fuels sooner rather than later. Imagine if solar panels became cheaper than fossil fuels by 2050: We would have solved the problem of global warming, because switching to the environmentally friendly option wouldn't be the preserve of rich Westerners.
Imagine? You mean, the superior alternative to doing something now is... imaginary?
Research for the project was done by a lead author of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the group that shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore - who noted that spending $800 billion over 100 years solely on mitigating emissions would reduce inevitable temperature increases by just 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Even accounting for the key environmental damage from warming, we would lose money, with avoided damage of just $685 billion for our $800 billion investment.
And the human genome project will be complete in... oh wait. Those projections of what might happen in the future aren't always accurate, are they? The imaginary solar energy solution may come to fruition in a decade... or never. I would also note that global spending $800 billion over a century, $8 billion per year, is a pittance, even if we assume it results in a net loss of $1.15 billion per year. By way of comparison, we spend considerably more than $8 billion on the Iraq war each month, and the total projected annual loss is less than four days of Iraq war spending. (Is he using a European notion of "billion" - what we would call "trillion"? Because otherwise....)
Even if every nation spent 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development of low-carbon energy, this would be only about one-tenth as costly as the Kyoto Protocol and would save dramatically more than any of Kyoto's likely successors.
Yet there's no reason we can't do both - implement the best available existing solutions that we know will reduce carbon emissions while also researching energy alternatives that may eventually supplace or augment existing carbon policies.

Meanwhile, Lomborg proposes spending $30 billion per year or so on research, to try to get better solar energy and biofuel solutions by 2050. But what if it takes until 2100? What if nations dismiss the idea that they should have to spend money on research, and thus the plan goes nowhere? Also, why does this need to be government money - if the cost of Kyoto, which will presumably fall largely on industry, will be ten times that amount, why won't affected corporations pour money into alternative energy R&D?

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