The failure shone a glaring light on the big gulf separating developed nations and emerging industrial powers, such as India and China, on the issue of climate change. President Barack Obama tried to put the best possible face on what happened by emphasizing what he termed the “historic” agreement to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees C.
Despite today’s failure, Obama and the G-8 leaders seem to remain committed to putting regulation of carbon at the center of climate policy. But there is another approach that is being championed by some policy analysts — an approach that unfortunately has received scant attention by both political leaders and the press. These analysts say framing the issue as avoiding a climate catastrophe by regulating emissions is virtually guaranteed to fail. And they argue that a more forward-thinking, less contentious approach emphasizing efficiency and low- and zero-carbon energy sources is a surer path forward.
The goal of any climate policy is straightforward enough. As Stanford University law professor David Victor puts it, we need to achieve “more economic output with less carbon pollution,” a factor known as carbon intensity.
How to do this is the rub. And broadly speaking, there seems to be two approaches. The first puts most of the emphasis on governmental regulation of carbon. This is the approach pursued at the G-8 summit, and it is the centerpiece of the Waxman-Markey climate legislation that passed the House and will now be considered in the Senate. But Victor and a number of other climate policy experts do not believe this approach will work, at least not if it’s adopted as a one-size-fits-all policy. As Victor put it recently in a comment on Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog:
“. . . as you know, I am no fan of how governments are trying to address the climate problem right now—as I wrote a long time ago, I think the approach of setting binding emission targets through treaties is wrongheaded because it “forces” governments to do things they don’t know how to do. And that puts them in a box, from which they escape using accounting tricks (e.g., offsets) rather than real effort.
The second broad approach emphasizes a combination of energy efficiency (which by definition reduces carbon intensity) and R&D, subsidies and regulation to boost deployment of low- and zero-carbon energy technologies.
As Roger Pielke, Jr. writes in his blog today:
“In contrast to the current approach, focused on emissions, imagine an approach to climate policy in which nations were debating targets and timetables for improvements in energy efficiency and the pace of deployment for low carbon energy supply rather than emissions reduction targets or even more disconnected from policy, global average temperature targets?
As the failure of the G-8 climate discussions sinks in over the next few days, I’m sure we’ll hear a few scientists and climate activists argue that part of the solution is better public understanding of climate science — and less disinformation from so-called “denialists,” which will help spur stronger action by the United States. And certainly journalists writing about these subjects need to present that point of view. But more reporting on the alternative approach emphasizing efficiency, and technological innovation and leadership, is in order.
Reporters should also consider the middle path described here by Stanford’s David Victor:
“What really matters are packages of proposals that are tailored to what countries can do. For some that will [be] Japanese style regulation. For others it will be cap and trade. For most it will be a hybrid of the two because the hybrids are much easier to tailor around what governments are able to achieve and what the political process will tolerate.”
I suspect, though, that this degree of depth, balance and nuance in reporting is too much to expect in the age of AJATT. (All Jackson, All The Time.)