New Study on Long-Term Climate Solutions by Belfer Center

In a new Op-Ed, How to Set Greenhouse Gas Emission Targets for All Countries, Professor Jeffrey Frankel of Harvard’s Belfer Center outlines an interesting approach to how to develop a post-2012 climate regime. The study may be an interesting reading for students when juxtaposed with proposals that focus more on other criteria, e.g. equitable considerations or economic efficiency. The full study is also available.

Frankel argues that any viable long-term solution requires participation by all major emitters in the developed and developing world, must develop a path for emissions reductions for a century, and must not impose exorbitant costs that would preclude participation or lead to withdrawal from the regime in the future. Frankel  disparages current proposals, however, indicating that they have focused on science, equity and economic cost-benefit analysis, but have failed to take into account critical political considerations.

Frankel indicates that any future climate change agreement needs to grapple with six “political constraints”

  1. The US will not commit to quantitative targets if China and other major developing countries do not commit to quantitative targets at the same time, due to concerns about economic competitiveness and carbon leakage.
  2. China and other developing countries will not make sacrifices different in character from those made by richer countries that have gone before them.
  3. In the long run, no country can be rewarded for having “ramped up” its emissions high above the levels of 1990.
  4. No country will agree to participate if the present discounted value of its future expected costs is more than, say, 1% of GDP.
  5. No country will continue to abide by targets that cost it more than, say, 5% of GDP in any one budget period.
  6. If one major country drops out, others will become discouraged and the system may unravel.

To address these constraints, Frankel proposes the following broad criteria for a post-2012 regime:

  1. Rich nations immediately begin to make emissions cuts in line with targets to which their leaders have already committed;
  2. Developing countries agree to maintain their business-as-usual emissions in the first decades, but over the longer term agree to binding targets that ultimately reduce emissions well below business-as-usual
    • However, the prescribed emissions cuts are no greater than the cuts made by rich nations earlier in the century, accounting for differences in per-capita income, per-capita emissions, and baseline economic growth.
  3. There is a “catch-up factor” for nations that did not agree to binding targets under Kyoto to make gradual emissions cuts to account for their additional emissions since 1990. This is intended to preclude latecomers from being rewarded with higher targets, or providing them with an incentive to ramp up emissions prior to signing the agreement

Under Frankel’s formula, global carbon emissions peak in 2035, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide stabilize at 500ppm by the last quarter of the century. Frankel indicates that most countries would only sustain losses of under 1% GDP for the first half of the century.

I find Frankel’s proposal problematic in many different aspects:

  1. It is by no means clear that a concerted program to facilitate technology transfer to developing countries could effectuate substantial reductions in emissions, and at a lower cost than that projected by Frankel under his proposal. See, e.g.: den Elzen, Differentiation of Countries’ Future Commitments in a Post-2012 Climate Regime, 10 Environmental Science & Policy (2007).
  2. Frankel’s projections for temperature increases under these scenarios are questionable for several reasons:
    • He fails to take into account non-carbon dioxide emissions, which from a forcing perspective result in about half of the projected warming. When one takes into account optimal carbon dioxide equivalent targets, it’s hard to see how we could permit developing countries to increase their emissions beyond 2010 without seriously risking an overshoot of 3-4 degrees C
  3. If economic considerations are important, the study fails to seriously take into account either: a. the huge economic implications of potential non-linear responses of the climate change system once we pass the 2 or 3 degree C threshold; and b. Ignores the fact that delays in implementing meaningful cuts will substantially increase many of the costs of mitigation, which may make this framework much less politically palatable in the long term.

I for one am not ready to concede that the only politically viable scenario now is one that puts us on a path of stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at 500 ppm given the dire implications of the 3 degree (and perhaps much more) temperature increase this scenario would wrought. More meaningful exploration of no-regrets mechanisms, many of which haven’t been assessed in any meaningful fashion at this point, as well as other mechanisms that may give us a lot of bang for our buck, e.g. addressing black carbon, need to be considered before we raise the white flag on the grounds of political expediency.

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