Something to build on
Q: As we get closer to the United Nation's conference on climate change in Copenhagen and nations begin setting their agendas, are their goals realistic? Last week, the U.S. and China each announced their emissions target goals. Are they big enough?
No country's commitments can be evaluated in isolation. Whether or not a commitment is "big enough" depends on what other countries can do and how the technological and political situation develops over time. At first glance, it seems easy to say that recent pledges by China and the U.S. fall short of what is needed, but this is taking a limited view. The long-term goal is to eliminate virtually all greenhouse gas emissions, so the essence of medium-term commitments is not the target itself but what kind of development they set in motion.
Most studies argue that emissions will need to peak sometime around 2020 for the world to have a chance to keep warming in a safe range, and it is difficult to imagine this goal being achieved if the reductions of China and the U.S. match today's pledges. However it is important to remember that a "cap" on emissions is really a ceiling -- and that companies will have economic incentives to come as far under the ceiling as possible. The American cap and trade system for sulfur dioxide, for example, saw emissions fall 22 percent below the cap in its first phase.
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions will be more difficult, and will require more extensive investments. Furthermore it is it yet unclear how China will implement its proposed target for emissions intensity. But if the incentives are there, the market will be driven to deliver technologies that meet, and maybe even beat, the targets being set.
Even if the carbon economy doesn't outperform expectations to 2020, the political commitments made may spur innovation and investment that leads to more radical reductions, at more manageable costs, in the years that follow. Were this to happen there may be political space to lower caps further and regain the needed trajectory. The promises of the U.S. and China may seem insufficient today--but they give us something to build on, and no reason to give up hope.
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