|Climate Protection Policies: Can We Afford to Delay? (WRI, 1997, 44 pages)|
As the Chinese proverb says: "If you don't change direction, you will surely end up where you are headed." Five years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, developed countries made a voluntary commitment to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Instead, in the United States and many other nations, emissions have grown at an accelerated pace and fossil fuel dependency has increased - trends that defy the need to reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Though the United States implemented a number of small-scale voluntary programs, these were not supported by appropriate market and policy signals and fundamental patterns of investment and consumption remained unaltered. The message is clear: no real change in direction, no change in where we are headed.
Current negotiations on climate policy offer an opportunity to set nations on a different path - one that will allow us to better meet the challenges of economic development and environmental protection. The prospects are perilous, however. As this publication is going to press, no international consensus has yet formed on how to achieve reductions significantly below 1990 levels, let alone the ultimate goal of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
One of the most frequent arguments against taking action now to reduce emissions is the supposed cost-effectiveness of a strategy of delay - doing less now and more later. After all, some argue, the shift toward a less carbon-intensive economy will take time and, if technology is constantly improving, reductions will be easier to make in the future. Moreover, since climate change is itself a slow process, surely we can "wait and see" and still have plenty of time to catch up later if we need to. Added to these arguments is the heavy weight of political expediency: a decision delayed is a decision avoided. Political and business leaders will be tempted to defer tough decisions to their successors, who will presumably be better informed of the science, better equipped with technology, and wealthier to boot.
In this report, WRI associate Duncan Austin identifies the fallacies in those arguments and the risks inherent in delaying policy action. Long-term economic transition requires clear policy signals now, allowing investors to make appropriate choices today and giving researchers the incentives they need to switch the focus of their development efforts from conventional energy options toward renewable and low-carbon alternatives. Without clear market and policy signals - signals that are broad enough to engage the economy as a whole - investment and technological development will continue along their present paths, just as they have done since the Earth Summit in 1992. In addition, the notion that we can "wait and see" represents a gamble we can ill afford. Precisely because we don't know what levels of greenhouse gas concentrations maybe safe, we must exercise caution. Early policy signals allow us to do just that.
What's really needed are changes in attitude and direction, changes that may be most difficult for the United States, given its high energy use and heavy burden of international leadership. If we are to avoid ending up where we are currently heading, the wealthy countries responsible for most of the emissions must take the lead and give firm, clear signals to their own constituents and to the rest of the world. We do not have 20 years to decide what to do. Rather, we have 20 years to achieve actual emissions reductions. Those reductions will mark the tangible beginnings of global action on this issue and make for a real change in where we are headed.
This report builds on the earlier work of WRI's Climate Protection Initiative: The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed; Climate Protection and the National Interest: The Links among Climate Change, Air Pollution, and Energy Security; Are Developing Countries Already Doing as Much as Industrialized Countries to Slow Climate Change?; U.S. Competitiveness Is Not at Risk in the Climate Negotiations.
We would like to thank the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Summit Foundation for their generous support.
World Resources Institute