Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Assuring Real Progress on Climate - by James Hansen

Global fossil fuel CO2 emissions (top curve).  Measured CO2 increase in air is yellow area.  The 7-year mean of CO2 going into the ocean, soil and biosphere is blue (5-, 3- and 1-year means at the end; dark blue line is annual). (Credit: Hansen) Click to enlarge.
In the “Lima Accord”, adopted a week ago in reasonably congenial negotiations in Peru, nearly 200 nations agreed to reduce their fossil fuel emissions from burning of coal, oil and gas.  Nations are to define their specific plans prior to a final agreement in Paris in December 2015.  No country will be legally bound to a specific reduction, but the hope is that peer pressure will result in both ambitious targets for the general good as well as good faith efforts at compliance.

So, are we on the verge of real progress in the fight to stabilize climate and help assure a good future for young people, future generations, and other life on the planet?

Nothing in the Accord assures that.  If Paris produces only another attempt to “cap” emissions nation by nation, as suggested above, that will be a huge loss of valuable time.

We should not despair though.  Key players in the discussions know that a rising carbon fee or tax is essential, if global fossil fuel emissions are to decline rapidly.  What is unclear is how much leadership and courage exist, so two vastly different outcomes are possible for the Paris Protocol:

Alternative 1: Caps and goals again.  In this scenario, nations provide plans to limit emissions.  Nations suffering most from climate change are satisfied to focus on monetary assistance.  At best, this approach slows emissions growth a bit.  Fossil fuel business-as-usual continues.  Unconventional fossil fuel use expands as does mining into extreme environments.

Vested interests, created by the deals involved in the ineffectual Kyoto cap-and-trade and offsets, infect the climate discussions, providing some inertia favoring business-as-usual.  It is easy to imagine acceptance of another ineffectual agreement.  Such an outcome would miss the great opportunity created by the present abundance of fossil fuels that has lowered energy prices.

Alternative 2: Courageous leadership emerges.  In this scenario, actions proposed in Lima are adopted, but also plans for a rising carbon fee to come into force once approved back home by a quorum of nations.  Quorum is defined so that Protocol initiation practically requires acceptance by either the United States or the European Union and either China or a combination of nations such as India and Brazil.  The gradually rising carbon fee would be accompanied by border duties on products from non-participating nations, collected by the importing country, unless the exporting country shows that no fossil fuel carbon was emitted in production of the product.

In Alternative 2 no single nation can blackmail humanity.  Once a quorum is achieved, there is a huge incentive for other nations to join, to avoid economic disadvantage and enjoy the economic stimulation.  A carbon fee, which would be collected at domestic mines and ports of entry, spurs an economy if the funds are fully distributed to the public.  However, the fee becomes a tax and a drag on the economy if a government keeps the funds to expand its programs.  Governments are prohibited from returning the funds to the fossil fuel industry as subsidies.  Otherwise specific use of the fee is a national prerogative.  However, it is noted that equal division of funds among residents tends to address income disparities, providing opportunities for low income people, while spurring essential efforts in conservation, energy efficiency and clean no-carbon energies.  Alternative 2 is a challenge, but one that we must fight for with all our strength and intelligence.
The present downturn of fossil fuel costs is a golden opportunity to introduce a gradually rising across-the-board carbon fee.  In that case, as the fossil fuel price rises the funds go into the pockets of citizens who pay attention to their carbon footprint, instead of enriching fossil fuel producers.  And the phasedown of our fossil fuel addiction is set in motion.

Read more at Assuring Real Progress on Climate - by James Hansen

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