Saturday, April 25, 2009

Better than Kyoto?

Bjorn Lomborg strikes again in today's NY Times:

"In Kyoto in 1997, leaders promised even stricter reductions by 2010, yet emissions have kept increasing unabated. Still, the leaders plan to meet in Copenhagen this December to agree to even more of the same — drastic reductions in emissions that no one will live up to. Another decade will be wasted...We might have assumed that investment in [energy technology] research would have increased when the Kyoto Protocol made fossil fuel use more expensive, but it has not. "

Lomborg suggests that instead of emissions limits, nations instead agree to invest .05% of GDP into research for making wind and solar energy technologies more competitive. He argues this would be more efficient and effective.

"Economic estimates that assign value to the long-term benefits that would come from reducing warming — things like fewer deaths from heat and less flooding — show that every dollar invested in quickly making low-carbon energy cheaper can do $16 worth of good. If the Kyoto agreement were fully obeyed through 2099, it would cut temperatures by only 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Each dollar would do only about 30 cents worth of good."

While he doesn't get into it in this article, Lomborg has also written persuasively that other public health investments are more compelling than carbon reductions. HIV treatment, malaria, cleaner drinking water, nutrition and education all have higher returns. Society must prioritize how we invest in a healthier planet (even more so after having lost a lot of ground due to the financial crisis).

"The fact is, carbon remains the only way for developing countries to work their way out of poverty. Coal burning provides half of the world’s electricity, and fully 80 percent of it in China and India, where laborers now enjoy a quality of life that their parents could barely imagine. " This statement is true, and troubling. The issue is whether we increase the chances (and speed) for leapfrog energy technologies with more R&D funding or with Kyoto.

Lomborg's view that investing in cleaner energy technologies may result in better decisions than regulating emissions deserves careful consideration by policy makers.

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