Currently, things are in a sad state of affairs, where politicians are frantically trying to find some way that they can pretend that a political agreement is a 'success' - but are also looking around for others to blame for Copenhagen's failure.
In fact, I think that reality is to blame for this conference falling short. A binding agreement with short-term emissions reductions will cost considerably more than the problem that it is meant to solve. That's based on the IPCC's expectations of climate damage, and all of the mainstream economic models' findings about how much it would cost to cut carbon to a meaningful level. (Consider this research by top climate economist Richard Tol, that I have mentioned in previous answers for the Planet Panel).
That major challenge is why countries have so far failed to implement meaningful carbon cuts - and why progress is so slow on trying to agree on new emission reduction targets.
The tragedy is that this failure is likely to be pasted over with a political agreement. This follows many other COPs before, such as Bali. If we are to respond effectively to global warming then we don't need any more feel-good summits, or exaggerated but empty declarations of success from politicians. We need action that actually does good.
Slapping huge taxes on carbon fuels can't be sold politically and won't anyway do much to halt climate change any time soon. What it will do is have a substantial negative
economic impact in the order of tens of trillions of dollars of lost production, because alternative energy technologies are not yet ready to take up the slack.
Over the past couple of hundred years, the world economy has grown rapidly and the human condition improved amazingly because of cheap fossil fuels; we're not going to end that connection in a few decades. The solution is not to make fossil fuels more expensive; the solution is to make alternative energy cheaper.
Copenhagen's failure is not necessarily a set-back, but -- ideally -- could serve as a lesson that it's time to switch to a smarter policy option.
November 19, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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