Emissions ReductionsWhile the scientific evidence for climate change grows, the policy responses have so far had little or no impact on the build-up of emissions. Following the recent developments in Copenhagen, there are few signs that this will change in the near future. With this in mind, this article examines why there is still such a gap between what science says is needed, and what is actually achieved through policy.

by Peter Garvin, Green Economy Post

The science of the greenhouse effect has been well known for a century, but the complexity of the climate makes any precise prediction of the relationship between specific concentrations of particular greenhouse gases and changes in global temperature extremely difficult. However, we have already had significant temperature changes and, in the Arctic, fairly rapid climate change. The prospect of an ice free North Pole in summer is not far away.

While the science of the climate and the empirical evidence mount up, the policy responses have, so far, had little or no impact. The global response has been meager. The United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC), agreed in 1992, built upon the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which had been established in 1988. It also kicked off the process which culminated in the Kyoto Protocol, built around fixing of national greenhouse-gas emissions-reduction targets for some developed countries.

Kyoto so far has delivered little: it has not made any appreciable difference to climate change – nor would it have done, had it been fully implemented and the targets delivered. The framework does not include binding caps on the USA, and provides no targets for India and China. At the time of its inception, these countries were not willing to acknowledge the supreme need for emission reductions that seem more widely accepted by those same countries today (although perhaps less so in the case of China following Copenhagen).

So why is there such a gap between the science and the evidence on the one hand, and the policy response on the other? The gap is particularly surprising because it has been widely claimed – notably in the influential Stern Report – that the costs of action now are comparatively small; smaller even than the typical annual differences between forecast and actual GDP. Some even claim that mitigating climate change is actually GDP-positive. It seems that the reluctance to commit to action is often based around what other countries are committing to – a problem that could remain right up until it is too late.

A great example is the Maldives – one of the countries most at risk from climate change. There they are aiming to be a carbon neutral nation. Is this just because they have to? If they don’t try to help themselves then no-one will? This may well be the case, but under current climate change predictions there will come a time when every country becomes “next” in terms of imminent climate chaos. If all countries do not listen to the science and make changes now, when they find themselves “next” it may already be too late.

The recent increase in interest in being involved in large scale climate change mitigation in huge contributors such as China and the USA has given hope that science and policy may proceed closer to equilibrium. Optimists hoped that Copenhagen would have seen to this, producing a strategy that would identify a way to marry the two concepts together. This was not to be the case without any legally binding agreements coming out of the summit.  This outcome was incredibly disappointing for many, many audiences.

However, while I believe the outcome of Copenhagen has set back the global fight against climate change, I believe it could well be argued that with all the publicity surrounding climate change, and the wealth of information being communicated by various organizations to a household level, it is not just large scale reform of environmental politics that needs to occur, but an acceptance of responsibility by every individual in the world.

© 2009 – 2010, peter.garvin. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: peter.garvin (7 Articles)

I am a recent Clean Technology MSc Graduate with a keen interest in all elements of Green Business. My main areas of experience are in carbon footprinting, reduction and offsetting. I have a strong desire to extent my expertise in many directions, particularly that of sustainability management.

  • http://www.greenlightsolutions.co.uk Simon Pyne

    This article fails to really answer the question it poses, which is an interesting one. to my mind, the reasons that policy lags science are numerous – 1) politicians have a short term mandate that means they have little interest in long term science, especially when action is costly 2) it’s a global game of economic chicken, where nations are avoiding being the first to subject their economies to the cost of mitigation and adaptation 3) scientists have failed to sufficiently engage the general public in the reasoning, unlike skeptics, who are good at misdirecting and supporting ignorance

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/naimishupadhyay Naimish Upadhyay

    Peter, you make an interesting point about why nations are not adopting aggressive emission reduction targets despite the latest analysis suggesting that such actions do not negatively impact the GDP as much as was once thought. The current global economic recession also is being too flippantly used by politicians as an excuse to not do anything for the climate. The real issue, as you rightly point out, is that all nations are reluctant to be the first to subject their economies to new costs (however manageable) while the rest of the countries carry on business as usual. This fear is not unfounded – the current model of global business does not incorporate the environmental cost of products and services, and polluters are known to move their businesses to countries with lax environmental standards. The end result? Business-as-usual countries gain an economic edge in the short run while those with stricter environmental controls tend to lose some of their business. It’s easy to see why no one wants to be the first to make the transition. To get it right, all countries have to do it together. One idea is that international monetary organizations such as the WTO and WB should look into instituting appropriate measures to prevent migration of polluting industries for the sole purpose of escaping environmental controls.

  • http://Website(optional) Andrew Brooks

    Interesting. I came into this debate a real believer in anthropogenic global warming, but I have to say the more I research it, the more it becomes apparent to me that there is still a lot of scientific disagreement around the question, with some powerful evidence suggesting that AGW either isn’t a problem or at least that it isn’t as much of one as some people think. I still try my best to stay open-minded, but it would help to see some convincing refutation or analysis of, for example, the fact that while the Arctic ice cover was reported to be shrinking at an unprecedented rate, its Antarctic counterpart was near or at record large coverage.

    http://www.climatechangefacts.info/index#PolarBears – you have to scroll 4/5 to 5/6 of the way down to hit the paragraph about ice sheet coverage.

    Any thoughts, from any point of view, are welcome.

    • laura s.

      Wake up and smell the mercury! It is rising at 5% per year since the industrial revolution began. 8% of the children being born in the USA are being born brain damaged by mercury. The main culpert is coal burning. Co2 is only part of the problem of our currant emissions policy. Green is the way to go- no neurotoxic pollutants added to our environment. We have all ready covered the entire US with lead which is entering the food supply- now we are adding mercury-its in the rain! This is a nightmere to me. The sooner we stop burning fuels the sooner we can reverse the poisoning of our farm soils.

      • http://Website(optional) Andrew Brooks

        Um, okay, but I asked about the ice sheets, Laura.