Even before the global economy began to stumble, 2009 was set to be a milestone year for climate change policy. A new US administration will take office with a decidedly more pro-active attitude toward addressing climate change, and international negotiations are expected to culminate in a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. But while efforts to address climate change have always had to contend with their possible impact on the economy, we are receiving a vivid reminder that this relationship also works in reverse: a slowing economy will emit fewer greenhouse gases than if growth continued at previous rates, and the financial burden of emergency fiscal stimulus and capital injections will hamper governments' ability to dedicate large sums to addressing climate change.
This morning I was looking at the most recent oil market estimates from the International Energy Agency in Paris. In January the IEA had expected global oil demand for 2008 to average 1.7 million barrels per day (MBD) higher than in 2007, or +2%, exceeding the 1.5% growth in 2007 that had helped to push oil prices from the $50s into the $90s per barrel. As of October 10, however, their estimate for 2008 has fallen to 86.5 MBD, a scant 0.5% increase over last year. Nor do they expect growth to pick up much next year. Their current 2009 forecast is for an average of 87.2 MBD, down from 87.7 MBD in July, and growth will almost certainly fall further--perhaps below zero. We see the tangible echoes of these expectations in falling oil prices and in the 1.5 MBD production cut announced by OPEC on Friday.
Each million barrels per day of global oil demand equates to about 160 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The consequences of high oil prices and slowing economic growth have thus reduced 2008 emissions by around 200 million tons of CO2, and the OPEC cuts should take a comparable slice out of next year's emissions, with the total slashed by even more, when consumption of other fossil fuels is taken into account. Of course, this represents only about 0.5% of global GHG emissions, and it falls far short of the kind of reductions that climate experts have called for.
What can we conclude from this simple observation? First, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the relationship between economic growth and energy consumption--and hence emissions--should work in both directions. But simply cutting growth can't be a desirable way to tackle climate change, not least because the reduction in growth necessary to achieve the desired emissions levels would be catastrophic for both developed and developing countries. Nor are countries in deep recession likely to spend as much on environmental protection, notwithstanding all the recent euphoria about "green jobs." And if the pessimists are right, merely slowing our emissions growth won't even buy us time for improving our responses, because we've already passed the sustainable level of atmospheric CO2 concentration. If that's true, then no realistically-achievable climate treaty is going to solve the problem before it gets much worse.
Because I still view climate change in terms of risks and trade-offs, however, I see one bright spot in the current economic difficulties. With their governments and trans-national institutions such as the G-8, IMF and World Bank scrambling to forestall a global financial and economic collapse, the negotiators following the Bali Roadmap towards a new climate agreement to be announced in Copenhagen next December must focus on approaches that deliver the largest emissions reductions at the least cost, with the least damage to an already fragile economy. That seems likely to produce the most sustainable result, in any case, and thus the response that is best suited to endure the financial instability that the further progress of climate change, itself, could still deliver, on top of the boom-bust cycles of markets.