Europe's dirty little secret on global warming

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

Almost two weeks ago, the European Union declared that it had practically saved the planet. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso claimed that Europe would lead the way on climate change, and the EU promised to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 percent below 1990-levels by 2020. Of course, with the EU already having promised an 8 percent cut by next year in the Kyoto Protocol, this new target seems slightly less ambitious. Moreover, in continuing the fundamental problems besetting the crippled Kyoto Protocol, the EU has essentially gone and made a worse deal. Man-made climate change is, of course, real, and constitutes a serious problem. Yet the current cut-emissions-now-before-it-is-too-late mindset neglects the fact that the world has no sensible short-term solutions. This seems to be why we focus on feel-good approaches like the Kyoto Protocol. Yet the agreement’s fundamental problem has always been that it is simultaneously impossibly ambitious, environmentally inconsequential, and inordinately expensive. It required such big reductions that only few countries could live up to it. Some countries, like the United States and Australia, chose to opt out of its stringent demands; others, like Canada, Japan, and a raft of European states, pay lip service to its requirements, but will essentially miss its targets. Yet, even if everyone had participated and continued to stick to Kyoto’s ever more stringent commitments, it would have had virtually no environmental effect: The treaty’s effect on temperature would not have been measurable by mid-century and would only have postpone warming by five years in the 21st century. Nonetheless, the cost would have been anything but trivial–an estimated $180 billion per year. With the EU’s high-pitched rhetoric, you would be forgiven for believing that it has now single-handedly taken the major step toward solving the problem. Barroso called the agreement “historic. British Prime Minister Tony Blair extolled its “groundbreaking, bold, ambitious targets. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even ventured that Europe’s promises could “avoid what could well be a human calamity. But nobody sees fit to reveal the agreement’s dirty little secret: it will do next to no good–and again at very high cost. According to one well-established and peer-reviewed model, the effect of the EU cutting emissions by 20 percent will postpone warming in the 21st century by just two years, yet the cost will be about $90 billion annually. It will be costly, because Europe is a costly place to cut carbon-dioxide, and it will be inconsequential, because the EU will account for only about 6 percent of all emissions in the 21st century. So the new treaty will be an even less efficient use of our resources than the old Kyoto Protocol. It is important to learn from the past. We have often been promised dramatic cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions far into the future, only to see the promises vanish when we got there. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the West promised to stabilize emissions, but overshot this by 12 percent. In Kyoto, we were promised a 7 percent reduction in world emissions, but will probably achieve only 0.4 percent. Of course, such promises are made by politicians who in all likelihood are no longer in office when the time comes to fulfil them. We will not be able to solve global warming over the next decades, but only over the next half or full century. We need to find a viable, long-term strategy that is smart, equitable, and doesn’t require inordinate sacrifice for trivial benefits. Fortunately, there is such a strategy: research and development. Investing in the research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies would leave future generations able to make serious and yet economically feasible and advantageous cuts. A new global warming treaty should mandate spending 0.05 percent of GDP on research and development in the future. It would be much cheaper, yet do much more good in the long run. The EU’s new global warming agreement may help win elections for leaders faced with voters scared by the prospect of climate change. But it will do virtually no genuine good, at a high cost, and, as with many other lofty promises from the EU, it will carry a high probability of failure. Let us hope that the rest of the world will keep its cool and propose a better, cheaper, and more effective solution for the future. Bjorn Lomborgis the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, and editor of the new book “How to Spend $50 billion to Make the World a Better Place. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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