Thursday, July 05, 2007

Taking the Climate Pledge

An op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times reminded me that the big climate change concert, Live Earth, is coming up this Saturday. It's hard not to be impressed by an event taking place simultaneously on every continent save Antarctica, and featuring a mix of the world's biggest pop stars and regional talent. Even more ambitious, however, is its organizers' stated goal of ensuring that Live Earth "inspires behavioral changes long after 7/7/07." This all comes together in the "Live Earth Pledge" that attendees and listeners will be asked to sign, committing themselves to action against climate change. Unsurprisingly, its seven points embody an aggressive view of the problem and its solutions. While some are laudable, others deserve more debate and don't reduce easily to a single line sign-off.

Here is the Pledge, point by point, with a bit of analysis:
  1. To demand that my country join an international treaty within the next 2 years that cuts global warming pollution by 90% in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth--The Pledge starts off with a bang, here. It suggests that the focus of international action has shifted beyond the Kyoto Protocol to a follow-on treaty, the scope and allocated responsibilities of which aren't yet known. So far, so good. Next, it proposes targets that implicitly accept the need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations somewhere between 450 and 550 ppm, while coming down squarely on the side of the developing world in putting most of the burden on "legacy emitters": the US, EU, and other OECD countries. Acceding to China's argument that historical and per-capita metrics matter more than current aggregate emissions may be high-minded, but frankly it won't get us where we must go. We need a mechanism that also recognizes that the easiest emissions to cut are ones that haven't yet occurred--from China's exponential growth, for example--rather than imposing truly draconian cuts on established economies. Even if you accept the idea that we can reduce a lot of emissions without causing major economic harm here, cutting by 90% goes far beyond that into hardship and dislocation territory, unless it happens through technology and infrastructure turnover. It's hard to see those gradual trends satisfying the "next generation" timetable, as fuzzy as that is.
  2. To take personal action to help solve the climate crisis by reducing my own CO2 pollution as much as I can and offsetting the rest to become "carbon neutral;"--This is my favorite plank, since behavioral change has the biggest potential for bypassing the long lead times for technology and fleet turnover. It also explicitly endorses tradable emissions offsets, making our emission reduction efforts more efficient by focusing them on the cheapest cuts, wherever they are found. The biggest problem with pushing this idea down to the personal level, however, is that it's not progressive: more than half of energy consumers probably can't afford to pay extra--even a little extra--to offset their CO2 emissions.
  3. To fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store the CO2--Since the technology for carbon sequestration isn't fully proven for large-scale application, I'd be happier if this had said, "without a sequestration-ready design and escrowing the funds to implement it as soon as it is available." Absent such a caveat, this part of the Pledge really says, "No new coal power plants; we will rely on renewable energy from here on out." That's quite a bet.
  4. To work for a dramatic increase in the energy efficiency of my home, workplace, school, place of worship, and means of transportation;--This is a useful recognition that our individual influence extends to all sorts of affiliations we enjoy. The aim is clearly to leverage the enthusiasm of Pledge signers into realms that might not have even noticed the Live Earth event.
  5. To fight for laws and policies that expand the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on oil and coal;--In a surprisingly short time, this has approached the status of motherhood and apple pie. I agree with the goal, but I continue to believe the transition will take much longer, and require the consumption of many billions more barrels of oil and tons of coal than most Pledge signers will guess.
  6. To plant new trees and to join with others in preserving and protecting forests; and--This really is motherhood and apple pie.
  7. To buy from businesses and support leaders who share my commitment to solving the climate crisis and building a sustainable, just, and prosperous world for the 21st century.--This last plank may be the cleverest and most effective of the bunch. As individuals our influence on governments is limited. The goal of transforming our own lives to make them carbon-neutral must compete with numerous other priorities: basic needs of food, clothing, energy and shelter; paying for new-but-indispensable services like cellphones, broadband and 200 channel TV; and all the other costs of modern middle class life. But harnessing our aggregate power as consumers is quite another matter. At little or no cost to ourselves, we can reshape the priorities of the companies we patronize, redirecting hundreds of billions of dollars of business expenses and capital investments toward "greener" suppliers and projects. Curiously, this rests on an assumption that many of those who would sign the Pledge instinctively could never admit: that business often responds more quickly to the choices of customers than governments to the choices of voters.

As you might expect from a group of organizers that includes former-VP Gore, the Live Earth Pledge has an enormous amount of thought behind it, reflecting his viewpoint that climate change represents an immediate global crisis requiring immediate global action. As my regular readers know, I share a somewhat more nuanced version of that view, expressed as a need for urgent, prudent management of an enormous risk. But did I "click here"? Even though I can accept four of the seven commitments more or less as they are, and two more with a few mental reservations, I can't get past #1. The realistic timeline for a 50% cut is probably more like 30 or 40 years than 20, which suggests we'll probably overshoot 550 ppm and have to pull back harder, later, with better technology. I also see the stated allocation of responsibilities for emissions reductions as a deal breaker, regardless of which party wins the White House next year. I don't know how we'll resolve the legacy emissions issue with China and India to get a truly global deal, but ceding this up front is bad policy and a lousy negotiating strategy.

No comments: