AS we count down the days to the global climate summit in Copenhagen it's becoming clear that, notwithstanding the likely presence of US President Barack Obama and other world leaders, the meeting is not going to produce a comprehensive agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
This has led to much gnashing of teeth among millions of well-meaning people who worry about global warming.
But they should take heart. Copenhagen's failure may be a blessing in disguise.
It may even bring us closer to a real solution to climate change.
To a large segment of the environmental community, it is an article of faith that the only way to stop global warming is to cut carbon emissions quickly and heavily. To suggest otherwise is to risk being labelled a crackpot, a traitor to mankind or (perhaps worst of all) a stooge of Big Oil.
Nonetheless, as John Adams famously noted, facts are stubborn things, and the fact is what we may call the Kyoto approach to solving global warming is likely to do more harm than good.
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Now don't get me wrong. I believe that global warming is real, that it is caused by man-made carbon dioxide emissions and that we need to do something about it. But what we need is action that does good, as opposed to empty agreements and moral posturing that merely make us feel good.
In other words, we need to be realistic.
To begin with, we need to acknowledge that nearly 20 years after the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (which produced the first international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions) and 12 years after the Kyoto summit (whose equally lofty goals have gone almost entirely unmet), it's clear that no leading industrialised power has the political will to impose the draconian carbon taxes or order the substantial carbon cuts it would take to markedly lower carbon emissions.
And that's probably just as well. Because even if we were willing to do whatever was necessary to meet the Kyoto goals, it wouldn't have much effect on climate change any time soon. As I have written elsewhere, even if the Kyoto Protocol were fully implemented, it would still take the rest of this century to reduce temperatures by less than one-third of one degree Fahrenheit.
What cutting carbon dioxide emissions to Kyoto levels would do is cost us hundreds of billions -- if not trillions -- of dollars in lost economic growth because, as promising as many of them are, alternative energy technologies are not ready to take up the slack.
Half the world's electricity still comes from coal. For emerging economies such as those of China and India, the proportion is closer to 80 per cent. Indeed, burning carbon-emitting fuels is the only way for developing countries to rise out of poverty.
The idea that we should combat global warming by discouraging use of carbon-emitting fuels -- say, by slapping hefty taxes on them -- ignores this reality. To put it bluntly, it's like saying that the way to cure obesity is to sew your mouth shut. Sure, you'd lose weight, but you'd probably also die in the process.
The solution is not to stop eating; it's to learn to eat sensibly.
Certainly, the way to get developing nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is not to handicap them by denying them the use of affordable energy. Rather, it's to help them develop faster.
History teaches us that despite their greater output, advanced economies pollute less than developing ones. In other words, the solution is not to make fossil fuels more expensive; the solution is to make alternative energy cheaper.
We spend a paltry $US2 billion ($2.15bn) a year on research and development for clean energy technologies. Increasing this to $US100bn a year could be a game-changer. Not only would it be almost twice as cheap as the $US180bn a year cost of fully implementing Kyoto, but the effect of this kind of spending would be hundreds of times greater.
Our work at the Copenhagen Consensus Centre has shown that we are likely to avoid just 2c of climate damage for every dollar we spend cutting carbon emissions. By contrast, every dollar we spend on green energy R&D would avoid $11 of damage.
For 20 years now, from Rio to Kyoto to Copenhagen, we've been spinning our wheels, trying to prop up the failed strategy of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Do we really want to be the generation that wastes another decade, making grand promises in Copenhagen, only to realise in 2020 that once again we have failed to make any real progress?
It's time we recognised that the Rio-Kyoto-Copenhagen road is leading us nowhere.
When it comes to global warming, we need a smarter and more realistic strategy that, instead of starving us, will accelerate the breakthrough technologies we need to power the green, affordable future we all want.
Bjorn Lomborg is director of Copenhagen Consensus Centre and author of Cool It: The Sceptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming.
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