Fab four: ways to meet the climate challenge

By Bryan Walker 08/10/2009

Climatechallenge Yet another pre-Copenhagen report has been released, this time  jointly from the influential Center for American Progress, the progressive think tank headed by John Podesta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff,  and the United Nations Foundation, the body founded with Ted Turner’s $1 billion gift in 1998 to support UN causes and activities.

Meeting the Climate Challenge (PDF) is brief and as punchy as such reports can be. It identifies and focuses on four core elements which it believes can deliver the most immediate effective response to climate change. Importantly, they are attractive in their own right and can be undertaken without delay. The first three, energy efficiency, renewable energy, forest conservation and sustainable land use, between them can achieve up to 75 percent of needed emissions reductions in 2020. And far from being costly the measures would deliver a net savings of $14 billion!  The report’s source is a Project Catalyst analysis. Renewable energy costs are estimated at $34 billion per year, forest conservation and land use at $51 billion; but energy efficiency measures save a staggering $98 billion per year. Net saving is the result.

The energy efficiency message is taking a long time to get through.  The report points to an array of market barriers that currently inhibit its full deployment.  Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and raising the price of carbon emission will help, but won’t alone be sufficient. Building codes, appliance standards, regulatory incentives for utilities to finance end-use efficiency improvements, and other policies could rapidly accelerate progress.  Currently energy efficiency is improving globally at 1.25 percent per year. Increasing this rate to 2.0 percent by 2015 would reduce emissions by 12 percent below business as usual in 2020. Analysis suggests a more ambitious goal of doubling the rate of improvement to 2.5 percent in major economies is achievable and would yield greater benefits.

Renewable energy is expanding rapidly and declining in cost. Still it is generally more expensive than competing — and often subsidized — fossil sources. This contains private investment and limits the market share for renewable energy, especially in developing countries. Policy incentives are needed. A global energy goal of deriving 20 percent of the world’s electricity sources from renewable sources by 2020 would reduce emissions by 10 percent below business as usual.

Forest conservation and sustainable land use is vital. Currently tropical deforestation produces over 17 percent of global CO2 emissions and agriculture and livestock generate another 14 percent — between them nearly one-third of all emissions. Unfortunately few good conservation practices make economic sense in today’s marketplace.  The market rarely values ecosystem services, which means that forests, wetlands, coral reefs and other natural habitats are often worth more dead than alive. National policy commitments, targeted financial incentives and the like are needed to correct this. Improvements in these areas would reduce emissions in 2020 by over 50 percent from business as usual.

The fourth core element is adaptation, and the report emphasises that significantly more resources, new and additional to existing aid commitments, must be offered to developing countries to plan and implement adaptation measures.

The report is at pains to point out that action in these four areas will help developed and developing countries alike to address a variety of strategic interests in addition to climate change, including sustainable development and job creation, energy security and energy access, food security and improved rural livelihoods, and environmental quality and public health.

This isn’t a forlorn call. The paper describes measures already being taken in some developed and developing countries that meet and even exceed the goals it recommends. Hopeful developments are identified in China, the EU, India, Brazil and the US.  It’s a matter at Copenhagen of increasing international support for the core elements, and suggestions are made as to how this might be achieved.

The report should receive attention. The writers are people of acknowledged competence in their various fields and the two bodies command wide respect.

John Podesta underlined the positive nature of the report in the press release: ’This report once again demonstrates that attending to climate change is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.’