NEW YORK: One odd and disturbing aspect of global politics today is the confusion between negotiations and problem-solving. According to a timetable agreed in December 2007, we have six months to reach a global agreement on climate change in Copenhagen. Governments are engaged in a massive negotiation, but they are not engaged in a massive effort at problem-solving. Each country asks itself, “How do I do the least and get the other countries to do the most?, when they should be asking instead, “How do we cooperate to achieve our shared goals at minimum cost and maximum benefit?
These might sound like the same thing, but they are not. Addressing the problem of climate change requires reducing emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, which in turn involves choices in technology, some of which already exists and much of which needs to be developed. For example, coal plants, if they are to remain a major part of the energy mix, will need to capture and store their CO2, a process called “carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS for short. Yet this technology remains unproved.
Similarly, we will need renewed public confidence in a new generation of nuclear power, with plants that are safe and reliably monitored. We will need new technologies to mobilize large-scale solar power, wind power, and geothermal power. We might try to tap bio-fuels, but only in forms that do not compete with food supplies or with precious environmental assets.
The list goes on. We will need improved energy efficiency, through “green buildings and more efficient appliances. We will need to switch from cars with internal-combustion engines to hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery-powered, and fuel-cell-powered vehicles.
Achieving a new generation of electric vehicles will require a decade of public and private partnership to achieve basic technological development (such as improved batteries), a more robust electric grid, new infrastructure for re-charging the automobiles, and much more. Similarly, it will take a decade of public and private investments to demonstrate the feasibility of coal-fired plants that capture their carbon dioxide.
The switchover to new technologies is not mainly a matter of negotiation but of engineering, planning, financing, and incentives. How can the world most effectively develop, demonstrate, and then spread these new technologies? Where the benefits are unlikely to accrue to private investors, who should pay for the early demonstration models, which will require billions of dollars? How should we preserve private incentives for research and development while committing to transfer successful technologies to developing countries?
These are pressing, unsolved questions. Yet the global negotiations on climate change are focusing on a different set of questions. The negotiations are mainly about which groups of countries should cut their emissions, by how much, how fast, and relative to which baseline year. Countries are being pressed to cut emissions by 2020 by certain percentage targets, without much serious discussion about how the cuts can be achieved. The answers depend, of course, on which low-emission technologies will be available, and on how fast they can be deployed.
Consider the United States. To cut emissions sharply, the US will need to switch over this decade to a new fleet of automobiles, powered increasingly by electricity. The US will also have to decide on the renewal and expansion of its nuclear power plants, and on the use of public lands to build new renewable energy plants, especially using solar power. And the US will need a new power grid to carry renewable energy from low-density population sites – such as the southwestern deserts for solar power and the northern plains for wind power – to the high-density populations of the coasts. Yet all of this requires a national plan, not simply a numerical target for emissions reduction.
Similarly, China, like the US, can reduce CO2 emissions through increased energy efficiency and a new fleet of electric vehicles. But China must consider the question from the vantage point of a coal-dependent economy. China’s future choices depend on whether “clean coal can really work effectively and on a large scale. Thus, China’s emissions path depends crucially on early testing of the CCS technologies.
A true global brainstorming approach would first discuss the best technological and economic options available, and how to improve these options through targeted research and development and better economic incentives. The negotiations would discuss the range of options open to each country and region – from CCS to solar, wind, and nuclear power – and would sketch a timetable for a new generation of low-emission automobiles, recognizing that market competition as well as public financing will set the actual pace.
Based on these building blocks, the world could agree on allocating the costs for speeding the development and spread of new low-emission technologies. This global framework would underpin national and global targets for emissions control and for monitoring the progress of the technological overhaul. As new technologies are proven, the targets would become more stringent. Of course, part of the strategy would be to create market incentives for new low-emission technologies, so that inventors could develop their own ideas with the prospect of large profits if those ideas are right.
My plea to discuss plans and strategies alongside specific emissions targets might seem to risk impeding the negotiations. But if we don’t have a strategy to accompany our targets, the world’s governments might not accept such targets in the first place, or might accept them cynically, without any intention of actually meeting them.
We need to think hard, and collaboratively, about the world’s real technological options, and then pursue a common global framework that allows us to move into a new era, one based on feasible and sustainable technologies for energy, transport, industry, and buildings.
Jeffrey D. Sachsis Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. This commentary is published by Project Syndicate, (www.project-syndicate.org).