Sunday, April 27, 2008

Get Real On Global Warming Goals

This article I wrote originally appeared in the Boston Globe on 4.22.09.

REJOICE, cry, or get motivated? After seven years of pretending global warming isn't a real issue, President Bush finally announced a national goal. Let us rejoice. The goal? "To stop the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025."

It's enough to make you cry. Who are his advisers? Clearly not the leading American climatologists who would have told him that leveling emissions by 2025 misses by over a decade that first and most critical milestone to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change.

If we want to improve our chances of averting this century the extinction of 50 percent of the species or dramatic drops in grain yields or devastating sea level rises, we have to get worldwide CO2 emissions to start a real decline as fast as possible. Scientist Jim Hansen says that if we wait until 2018 to "stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions" then we have close to no chance of avoiding catastrophic effects. Scientist John Holdren tells us that if we plateau in 2015, our chances of averting these catastrophic effects are down to 50 percent.

All of us are caught in what could turn out to be a death spiral. Politicians suggest a roadmap of politically acceptable solutions that promise CO2 reductions in the palatable distance because they believe the public won't accept what is really required. The public, not yet adequately informed, looks to politicians to tell us the scale of response required and how to achieve it. Leadership won't lead, and the people aren't clued in.

Cap and trade is the current approach on Capitol Hill and in presidential-candidate platforms because it puts the burden of action far from consumers (voters), even managing to overlook the 20 percent of emissions that come from our personal cars. Under cap and trade, major point sources of CO2 emissions - power plants and energy-intensive factories - will take important and necessary steps to reduce emissions by retrofitting their plants and factories. But unless there is a magic wand out there that can be waved over each smokestack, retrofits and new facilities can't possibly come online in the time frame we are talking about - now, and within two to three years. Cap and trade solutions just don't cut it.

Bush's speech did have one brilliant idea that should be adopted immediately. He said that the country needs to create incentives that should be 1) "carbon-weighted to make lower-emission power sources less expensive relative to higher emissions sources," 2) "technology-neutral because the government should not be picking winners and losers in this emerging market," and 3) "long-lasting."

A carbon incentive needs to be applied immediately to everything that emits CO2. The more you emit, the more you pay. This will encourage people to choose options that produce the least amount of emissions.

The changes needed to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the next two to three years aren't Draconian. We need to reduce our CO2 production by 3 percent this year, and 3 percent each subsequent year. If we cut one of every 20 car trips, or share one out of every 10 rides, that's 1 percent of all CO2 emissions.

And so let's get motivated. We need to stop growth in CO2 emissions not by 2025, or 2018, or 2015, but by 2011. The individuals, businesses, states, and countries that accept this reality first will have a head start on the solutions needed to thrive and succeed, in the new low-carbon economy this century demands.

Politicians need to stop offering solutions inadequate to the task. Americans are strong, brave, and smart. Not only can we take hard truths, we demand them. We want to win. We want to be leaders in this new world. Give us carbon-weighted incentives and watch us lead the world.

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