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No single path to low greenhouse gas emission future

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 5 Mar 2001 -- “There is no single path to a low (Greenhouse Gas, GHG) emission future and countries and regions will have to choose their own path” requiring different patterns of energy resource development and associated investments, as well as associated socio-economic and institutional changes, leading climate change experts and officials from some 100 governments have said in a major report assessing effective policies and technologies for tackling GHG emissions and the threat of human-induced climate change.

The assessment has been provided in a report by Working Group III of the WMO/UNEP Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which met in Accra, Ghana and released a summary for policy-makers. Like the other working group reports, the wide range of scientific, economic and social experts from around the world drew up the 800-page report, and the summary for policy-makers was discussed at the Accra meeting between government representatives and the scientific experts.

In January, the Working Group I of the IPCC had produced a report and a summary for policy-makers, confirming new and stronger evidence of human influence on the global climate, and projecting that the globally averaged temperature of the air above the earth’s surface would rise by about 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years.

In February, the IPCC Working Group II had produced a report analysing how the global warming would affect natural and human communities around the world, and the various groups of countries. Increases in global mean temperatures would produce net economic losses for many developing countries. And while at the lower level of projected global warming, some developed regions may benefit; above a 3 degree Celcius rise,  there will be economic losses for most countries, the IPCC chairman, Dr.Robert Watson said on 19 February at a press briefing.

The WG-III views would come as a sobering reminder to policy-making, which over the last two decades has acquired, in the economic arena, a monotheistic messianic zeal about the market and market policies.

According to the WG-III summary for policy-makers, the choice of energy mix and associated investment will determine whether atmospheric concentrations of GHG can be stabilized, and  if so, at what level and cost.

At the moment, most such investment is directed towards discovering and developing more fossil fuel resources, including both conventional and unconventional resources like tar sands etc.

The report estimates that the costs to the industrialized countries of achieving the Kyoto protocol targets, without the benefits of an international emissions trading system, would be 0.2 to 2.0 percent of projected GDP in 2010. With full emissions trading among these countries, the cost would decline to 0.1 to 1.1 percent.

And if reduced air pollution and other ancillary benefits are included, as well removal of market imperfections and other factors, the costs can be reduced even further.

Climate change is a global, long-term (over several centuries) problem, and involves complex interactions between climatic, environmental, economic, political, institutional, social and technological processes.  These may have significant international and inter-generational implications in the context of broader social goals like equity and sustainable development.

Climate change mitigation will both be affected by, and have impacts on, broader socio-economic policies and trends, such as those relating to development, sustainability and equity.

Differences in the distribution of technological, natural and financial resources among and within nations and regions, and between generations, as well as differences in mitigation costs, are often key considerations in the analysis of climate change mitigation options.

The WG-III report has analysed the GHG stabilization scenarios on the basis that the developed countries and the economies in transition would limit and reduce their GHG emissions first.

There are abundant fossil fuel resources that will not limit carbon emissions during the 21st century. The choice of energy mix and associated investments will determine whether, and if so, at what level and cost, GHG concentrations can be stabilized. Currently, most such investment is directed towards discovering and developing more conventional and unconventional fossil resources.

Since the IPCC Second Assessment Report (SAR) in 1995, there has been significant technical progress for GHG reduction, this has been faster than anticipated.

Forests, agricultural lands, and other terrestrial ecosystems offer significant carbon mitigation potential. Though not necessarily permanent, conservation and sequestration of carbon may allow time for other options to be further developed and implemented. The biological mitigation of climate change can occur by three strategies: conservation of existing carbon pools, sequestration by increasing the size of the pools, and substitution of suitainably produced biological products.

Conservation may help to avoid emissions, if leakage can be prevented, and can only become sustainable if the socio-economic drivers of deforestation and other losses of carbon pools can be addressed.

Conservation and sequestration result in higher carbon stocks, but can lead to higher future emissions if the ecosystems are severely disturbed either by natural or human-induced disturbances.

Taking into account competition for land use and the SAR and other assessments, the estimated global potential of biological mitigation options is of the order of 100 gigatons of carbon (GtC) cumulative by 2050, though there are substantial uncertainties associated with this estimate.

“There is no single path to a low emission future, and countries and regions will have to choose their own path. Most models results indicate that known technological options could achieve a broad range of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) stabilization levels - such as 550 ppmv, 450 ppmv or below over the next 100 years. But implementation would require associated socio-economic and institutional changes.

But to achieve stabilization at these levels, a very significant reduction in world carbon emissions per unit of GDP from the 1990 levels will be necessary. Technology improvement and technology transfer play a critical role in the stabilization scenarios assessed in the WG-III report. For the crucial energy sector, almost all GHG mitigation and concentration stabilization scenarios are characterized by introduction of efficient technology for energy use and supply, and low- or no-carbon energy.

But no single technology option will provide all the emission reductions needed.

“Transfer of technologies between countries and regions will widen the choice of options at the regional level and economies of scale and learning will lower the costs of their adoption.”

There are widely varying estimates of costs and benefits of mitigation actions. This is because of how welfare is measured, the scope and methodology of the analysis and the underlying assumptions built into the analysis.

Some sources of GHG emissions can be limited at nil or negative social cost to the extent that policies can exploit no regret opportunities.  These include correction of market imperfections, the ancillary benefits (such as reduction in local land regional air pollution) and instruments such as taxes or auctioned permits bringing in revenues to governments.

The successful implementation of GHG mitigation options needs to overcome many technical, economic, political, cultural, social, behavioural and/or institutional barriers which prevent full exploitation of the technological, economic and social opportunities of these mitigation options.

National responses to climate change can be more effective if deployed as a portfolio of policy instruments to limit or reduce GHG emissions.

These instruments could include emissions/carbon/energy taxes, tradable or non-tradable permits, provision of and/or removal of subsidies, technology or performance standards, energy mix requirements, product bans, voluntary agreements, government spending and investment.

Market-based instruments may be cost effective in many cases, especially where capacity to administer them is developed.

The effectiveness of climate change mitigation can be enhanced when climate policies are integrated with non-climate objectives of national and sectoral policy development and turned into broad transition strategies to achieve long-term social and technological changes.

Coordinated actions among countries and sectors may help to reduce the mitigation cost, address competitiveness concerns, potential conflicts with international trading rules and carbon leakage.

The climate change decision-making is essentially a sequential process under general uncertainly. The relevant question is not “what is the best course for the next 100 years, but rather, what is the best course for the near term, given the expected long-term climate change and accompanying uncertainties.”

The report underscores the vast gap in knowledge and gives a high priority for further research.

Among these, it calls for evaluating climate mitigation options in the context of development, sustainability and equity. These include exploration of alternative development paths, including sustainable consumption patterns in all sectors, including the transportation sector; identifying opportunities for synergy between explicit climate policies and general policies promoting sustainable development; integration of intra- and inter-generational equity in climate change mitigation analysis; implications of equity assessments; and analysis of scientific, technical and economic implications of options under a wide variety of stabilization regimes.

IPS adds from Washington:

Advances in renewable and energy-efficient technology,  combined with the willingness of governments to experiment with new economic approaches to energy markets, can significantly cut greenhouse emissions at  little cost, according to the summary for policy-makers.

While the report stresses that there is no single path to reducing emissions,  the panel says that if currently available technological innovations in  renewable energy and energy efficiency are promoted by governments, carbon  dioxide emissions could be significantly reduced within the next 100 years.

Significant technological advances in renewable energy, such as wind turbines  and fuel efficient hybrid engine cars, have progressed faster than anticipated,  it says.

In various mitigation scenarios studied by the panel, no single technology  option provides all of the emissions reductions needed. A combination of market  incentives and technologies is the most effective, says the summary.

According to another report released in Accra last week by the United Nations  Environment Programme (UNEP), geothermal, small-scale hydro-power, solar,  biomass, and wind technologies have grown proportionally faster than any other  electricity supply technology.

The wind energy industry, for example, has grown in just two decades from a  producer of small machines to a modern, multi-billion dollar industry supplying  bulk, grid-connected power, says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP.

Since the 1990s the cost of wind generated electricity has dropped seven-fold,  which makes wind power competitive with most fossil fuel technologies, he says.

“It is increasingly true,” says Toepfer, “that there are no technical, financial or economic reasons why the nations of the world cannot enjoy the  benefits of a high level of energy services and a better environment... It is simply a question of making the right choices.”

One of the right choices, according to the report by the scientific panel, is to  remove government subsidies for fossil fuels and instead devote them to  renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The report also says the use of various market mechanisms, such as emission  trading permits, could reduce the net economic cost of meeting emissions  reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

The international treaty, named after the Japanese city where it was drawn up in  1997, requires industrialised nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by  2012 to five percent below 1990 levels.

While more than 100 countries have signed the agreement, not one industrialised  nation has ratified the treaty.

The report says the most effective way a country could meet its treaty obligations would be to develop several policy instruments, including tradable  or non-tradable emission permits, energy mix requirements, energy efficiency  standards, support for research and development, and the redirection of energy  subsidies.

“Market-based instruments may be cost effective in many cases, especially where  capacity to administer them is developed,” says the report summary. The report  also says the transfer of technologies between countries and regions will  “widen the choice of options at the regional level and economies of scale and  learning will lower the costs of their adoption”.

Preserving forests, which store carbon dioxide, is another way governments can  mitigate global warming, says the report. Promoting agricultural practices that  emit less carbon from the soil, such as no-till farming, is also a method policy-makers can utilise to foster reductions in greenhouse gases, it says.

The report says some government proposals to implement a carbon tax can have  negative income effects on low-income groups “unless the tax revenues are used  directly or indirectly to compensate such effect”.

Some mitigation actions may yield extensive benefits in areas outside of climate change, says the panel’s report.

“For example, they may reduce health problems; increase employment; reduce  negative environmental impacts (like air pollution); protect and enhance  forests, soils and watersheds; reduce those subsidies and taxes which enhance  greenhouse gas emissions; and induce technological change ... contributing to  wide goals of sustainable development,” says the summary.-SUNS4849

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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