The means to the end

Over four days in July. 178 countries concluded a compromise to ensure a continuing of international efforts to address climate change. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published Climate Change 2001, a 2,600-page, three volume tome detailing the evidence for climate change, what it means, and what we can do about it.
Matt MacAllan reviews...

And so the Kyoto Protocol remains, an historic, if somewhat beleaguered, agreement. Assuming – fairly at the time of writing – that the Bonn resolution passes, the Kyoto Protocol will be the first international treaty to restrict energy consumption. We will have the political will.

Technological options
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is at its highest level for more than 400,000 years...Since 1750 the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 31 per cent...The current rate of increase is unprecedented in the last 20,000 years...The increase in Northern Hemisphere temperatures in the 20th century was the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years. These, and other facts, courtesy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its seminal report, Climate Change 2001. The report has been written by almost 150 lead and co-ordinating lead authors, some 80 contributing authors and 18 review editors from developed countries, developing countries, countries with economies in transition, and international organisations. The inescapable conclusion, say the IPCC, is that human activity is responsible for this exceptional increase in global temperature.

Volume three of Climate Change 2001 is entitled simply Mitigation. It consists of ten chapters covering the technological options to address climate change, their costs and ancillary benefits, the barriers to their implementation, and policies, measures and instruments to overcome such barriers.

According to Climate Change 2001, industrial emissions accounted for 43 per cent of carbon released in 1995. Industrial sector carbon emissions grew at a rate of 1.5 per cent per year between 1971 and 1995, slowing to 0.4 per cent per year since 1990. In continuing to identify more energy efficient processes and reductions of process-related greenhouse gases (GHG), industry has emerged as the only sector, within OECD economies, to demonstrate an annual decrease in carbon emissions (-0.8 per cent per year, 1990-1995).

However, the report goes on to state: “Differences in the energy efficiency of industrial processes between different developed countries, and between developed and developing countries remain large, which means that there are substantial differences in relative emission reduction potentials between countries.”

According to the report, improvement in the energy efficiency of industrial processes remains the most significant option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This potential, it claims, is made up of hundreds of sector-specific technologies. Worldwide potential for energy efficiency improvement for the year 2010 is estimated to be between 300 and 500 million tonnes of carbon, and for the year 2020 between 700 and 900 million tonnes, although in the latter case continued technological development is necessary to realise the potential.

The report recognises that already, many governments and companies have focused their strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on encouraging technological innovation. Innovation, it is broadly recognised, can lead to improvements in technology performance, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of service provided, or reductions in cost for low emissions technology – all of which can contribute to mitigation.

Attention to innovation
The report goes on to point out, however, that the predominant concern of governments and individual companies has been one of maximising the rate of technological change and specifically its contribution to competitive advantage: “Environmental concerns are usually recognised,” the report comments, “but are rarely a major priority for national systems for innovation. Indeed,” it goes on, “there may even be a concern that paying more attention to innovation strategies about environmental objectives would be detrimental to competitiveness.

“There may be many opportunities to find synergies between the goals of improving competitiveness and reducing GHG emissions. The most obvious of these opportunities are cases where GHG mitigation could reduce costs. A greater challenge for businesses and governments is to seize opportunities to create new markets for low GHG-emitting technology.”

The report recognises that perhaps one of the greatest barriers to employing innovation in addressing GHG emissions is the lack of incentives, and also that economic, regulatory, and social incentives for reducing GHG emissions can act as incentives for innovation too.

(Another barrier presented by the report, which both slows technological change in general and tends to skew it in particular, is that posed by “lock-in”. Consider the keyboard in front of you: the ‘QWERTY’ layout was designed to prevent keys jamming in mechanical typewriters. Alternative layouts, it is claimed, could double typing speeds, but are ignored due to the retraining costs they would incur. Power stations, light bulbs, cars...)

Shaping context
Of course, the development of green technologies cannot exist in a vacuum. The wider environment plays an important role in shaping the context for such technological development, and therefore in determining the feasibility of climate change mitigation. Climate Change 2001 sets out several important elements:

  • market conditions, including ease of entry for new companies and technologies; availability of capital; the degree of internalisation of social and environmental concerns through taxes, subsidies, insurance and mechanisms; and the degree of competitiveness, including any oligopolistic practices or informal arrangements between government and the private sector.

  • the legal system, including the system of intellectual property rights; the allocation (e.g. among firms or between the public and private sector) of liability for past and future environmental damage; freedom of speech and information; and ease of litigation.

  • the physical infrastructure, including the design of cities and other elements, transport systems and utilities; and their flexibility in permitting the adoption of alternative technologies, lifestyles and production systems;

  • social and political structures, including the role of the public in decision making; the location of power in institutional and social relationships; the presence of formal or informal alliances, for example involving government, industry and the media; and the allocation of roles within households and communities;

  • culture, including cultural diversity; the role of technology and material, consumption in establishing individual identity, status and social bonds; tendencies towards competition and co-operation, conformity and distinction; and

  • psychology, including awareness, understanding and attitudes relating to climate change, its causes and potential impacts, and to changes in technology and lifestyles.

“Reliance on market mechanisms alone,” the report states, “without an appropriate institutional framework that performs a co-ordinating function among sectors, is inadequate and may be destructive of social capital.” Thus, the report points out, the successful implementation of greenhouse gas mitigation requires not just technical solutions, but a surmounting of the economic, political, cultural, social, behavioural and institutional barriers which prevent the full exploitation of technological, and other, mitigation measures.

Climate change, Mitigation recognises, represents a unique problem – biblical, even, in consequence – with a time-scale measured in centuries, and involving complex environmental, economic and social interactions, worldwide. The United States, we know, considers the Kyoto Protocol to be “fatally flawed” and generally against the economic interests of Americans everywhere. IPCC: “Differences in the distribution of technological, natural and financial resources among and within nations and regions, and between generations, as well as differences in mitigation costs, are often key considerations in the analysis of climate change mitigation options. Much of the debate about the future differentiation of contributions of countries to mitigation and related equity issues also considers these circumstances. The challenge of addressing climate change raises an important issue of equity, namely the extent to which the impacts of climate change or mitigation policies create or exacerbate inequities both within and across nations and regions.”

While the world waits for ‘Dubya’ to present a working alternative – possibly in time for the next round of climate talks, COP 7, scheduled to start in Marrakech in October – prior to the Bonn talks senior executives from more than 40 corporations urged the European Union and Japan to join forces to bring the US back into the Kyoto fold, calling for flexibility on all sides. They claimed that the failure of Kyoto could generate a hotch-potch of regional environmental rules which would in fact stifle growth. This from Etienne Davignon, the vice-chairman of Sociétè Génèrale de Belgique and co-chairman of the EU-Japan Business Dialogue Round Table: “We need a protocol; it’s indispensable.”

Climate Change 2001 is published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


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