Meeting, not setting, goals is key

Times Staff Writer

Here’s a recipe to head off the worst effects of global warming:

1. Start with 30 new nuclear power plants around the world.

2. Add 17,0000 wind turbines, 400 biomass power plants, two hydroelectric dams the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam, and 42 coal or natural gas power plants equipped with still-experimental systems to sequester their carbon dioxide emissions underground.

3. Build everything in 2013. Repeat every year until 2030.

It’s an intentionally implausible plan presented this week by the International Energy Agency to make a point: For all the talk about emissions reductions, the actual work is way beyond what the world can achieve.

As delegates from 190 countries gather here on the Indonesian island of Bali to negotiate a “road map” for the successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming, some experts are wondering whether the meeting has lost touch with the reality of tackling climate change.

So far, the thousands of delegates have been consumed by a debate over caps on emissions of greenhouse gases that are the primary cause of global warming.


The United States and China -- the two biggest carbon polluters, each accounting for about 20% of worldwide emissions -- have opposed any hard caps.

But while the debate continues, the most fundamental question of what it will take to achieve meaningful reductions has gone largely forgotten.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in its landmark reports this year that annual worldwide emissions must be cut at least in half by 2050 to avoid the most serious consequences of global warming, such as severe rises in sea levels and prolonged droughts.

The recipe from the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based research group, is one way to get there while still meeting the world’s rising demand for power. But no one is banking on it being implemented any time soon.

“When the governments or the people in the negotiations decide on such a target reduction as 50% by 2050, they have to realize the implications,” said Nobuo Tanaka, head of the group and a top energy authority.

The talks in Bali are built around the idea that reductions would be driven by an international trading system for greenhouse gas emissions. The system would in essence be a stronger version of Kyoto, which expires at the end of 2012.

Countries would be assigned caps on their total emissions. If a country polluted below its quota, it could sell its surplus allowance on the market. If it exceeded its cap, it would have to purchase allowances. Over time, as caps were lowered and the price of allowances rose, it would become cheaper to invest in carbon-cutting technology and clean-energy alternatives than to keep polluting.

But some economists said that the trading scheme is too weak to generate the massive investments needed to wean the world off fossil fuels.

To begin with, there is no easy way to enforce such agreements.

“Nobody is going to invade France, Russia or the United States, or break off diplomatic relations or boycott a country,” said Thomas Schelling, a University of Maryland economist who studies environmental policy.

Exhibit A is Kyoto itself. Japan, Canada and most of Western Europe are not on pace to meet the relatively modest targets set by the protocol.

“I can’t imagine anything effective coming out of Bali,” Schelling, a Nobel laureate, said. “Frankly, they just don’t know what else to do.”

Schelling said that countries must begin to focus on ways to encourage the development of cleaner-energy technologies. He and 36 other experts, including two other Nobel laureates, recently called upon the U.S. government to increase spending on carbon-neutral energy development tenfold to at least $30 billion a year, in an effort they likened to the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program.

“We went into World War II with biplanes and came out with jet fighter planes,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University and coauthor of the petition. “If we took this problem seriously, a decade from now there would be no need to make cars that emit CO2 to the atmosphere.”

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, countered that a sizable chunk of research in the U.S. was funded by private investments.

He also pointed to recent government investments in wind power, as well as billions of dollars spent over many years to develop nuclear fusion.

Tanaka, of the energy research group, said his agency did not consider the possibility of clean fusion energy because the technology seemed unlikely in the next 30 years.

But he added: “Who knows what will be the new technology breakthroughs? Maybe 2050 is still a little early for fusion, but it is possible.”