Necessary global greenhouse gas cuts are economically feasible

Many cost effective solutions to cutting greenhouse gas emissions are already available and at very low cost to economies, but governments need to address institutional, behavioural and other barriers before they can realise their potential, according to leading climate change experts.

According to the Third Assessment Report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), finalised in Accra, Ghana on 5 March, the costs to industrialised countries of achieving their Kyoto Protocol targets would be 0.2-2.0% of projected GDP in 2010. However, with full emissions trading amongst these countries, the cost would decline to 0.1-1.1% of GDP, and would reduce further if reduced air pollution and other ancillary benefits are included.

The new report is the final one in a set of three, the first of which found that global temperatures are rising faster than predicted, and that evidence that the cause is largely anthropogenic was also growing (see href=””>related story), and the second of which outlined the effects that such an increase in temperatures will cause, including worsening desertification in Africa and increased flooding in Europe (see related story). In addition to the report, officials from some 100 governments have finalised a Summary for Policymakers, which climate change scientists have confirmed is consistent with their findings.

According to the summary, the choice of energy mix and associated investment taken up by governments will determine whether atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses can be stabilised. Currently, most of such investment is being directed towards discovering and developing more fossil resources.

Nevertheless, progress since 1995 on developing technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been faster than anticipated. Important advances have included the market introduction of efficient hybrid engine cars and wind turbines, the demonstration of underground carbon dioxide storage (see related story), the advance of fuel cell technology and the rapid elimination of industrial gases.

“This report moves us from a focus on the problem to a focus on the solution,” said Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “The good news is that there are cost-effective policies and technologies available for cutting emissions. The bad news is that there are many barriers to rolling these out. We must figure out how to break down these barriers.”

While a change in energy supply will play a central role in curbing climate change, hundreds of technologies and practices for end-use energy efficiency in buildings, transport and manufacturing industry account for more than half of the potential for global emissions reductions from 2010 to 2020. Some studies also show that half of this potential can be realised through options that actually save money, known as ‘no regrets’ options (see related story).

“I am convinced that the turn-around in global emissions can be achieved over time through cost-effective policies and 21st century technologies that will benefit economic growth and sustainable development,” said Michael Zammit Cutajar, Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Change Convention. “Developed countries must take a convincing lead in demonstrating these opportunities. The Kyoto Protocol, on which negotiations will resume soon, seeks to start this movement.”

“The potential for rapid technology innovation leading to clean energy and other climate change solutions is clearly extraordinary,” said Töpfer. “Governments need to unleash this potential by giving the private sector the signals and incentives it needs. They also need to remove the economic, legal, behavioural and institutional barriers that can discourage consumers and companies from exploiting climate-friendly technologies.”

Environmentalists are relieved by the new report. “This report is a ray of hope, revealing that it is possible to prevent the terrible climatic consequences from burning coal, oil and gas,” said Roger Higman, Senior Climate Campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “Hundreds of workable and cost-effective alternative solutions exist. Now it is time for governments around the world to put them into practice. It is absolutely imperative that the negotiations on a world climate treaty, which are due to resume this summer in Germany, reach a successful outcome. The United States and the handful of other countries that have so far failed to take effective action must accept genuine cuts in their own emissions.”

A copy of the Summary for Policymakers is available from the IPCC website.

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