08 May 2007

Global Climate Change: IPCC Says It's Possible to Mitigate Climate Change, Minimize Costs

The latest report issued last week by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of climate science experts, outlines the best ways to mitigate climate change. Their conclusion? We have what it takes to mitigate climate change and minimize the costs.

Working Group III's Report "Mitigation of Climate Change" (click here for a PDF Summary for Policymakers) is the third segment of the larger IPCC report. The first, released in February, concluded that global warming is almost certainly human-caused and the second, which came out in April, warned of the consequences already occurring and yet to come such as massive human death and disease, droughts, floods, and storms.

The new report proposes limiting concentrations of greenhouse gases, currently factored at 380 parts per million (ppm) to between 445 and 650 ppm. More importantly, however, the report indicates a variety of mitigation strategies, including energy efficiency and conservation, reducing deforestation, and investing in solar and other renewables to accelerate the world's response to the changing climate.

As many of us have maintained, the report concludes that the costs of tackling climate change now are dwarfed by the potential damages of global warming. There is also some consensus around the idea that investments now may foster economic development through investments in available technologies and other measures.

"This report for the first time has dealt with lifestyles and consumption patterns as an important means by which we can bring about mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions," says IPCC Chairman, Rajendra Pachauri. "Of course you can look at technology, you can look at policies, but what is an extremely powerful message in this report, is the need for human society as a whole to start looking at changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns,”

That may be tough for many to swallow, especially those opposed to actions that require such lifestyle changes, carbon taxes, or that strengthen limits to CO2 emissions in order to encourage carbon trading.

"There are measures that come currently at an extremely high cost because of the lack of available technology," said James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in response to the report. Connaughton and others are concerned that some scenarios outlined by the IPCC report may bring cuts in world gross domestic product of as much as 3 percent. That, suggests Connaughton, is "something that we probably want to avoid."

One scenario would put the stabilization level of greenhouse gases in 2030 between 445 and 535 parts per million. This scenario estimates that the negative impact on gross domestic product would be less than 3 percent over more than two decades, with an annual impact estimated at less than 0.12 percent.

Much depends upon the price of carbon, as the Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend. The IPCC report used a range of between $20US and $100US for every ton of CO2 to analyze its scenarios. Carbon was trading at $25US in Europe under its carbon trading scheme as recently as last week. A McKinsey & Company study from January suggested "that greenhouse gas cuts approximately as stringent as those surveyed in the UN study would cost as much as $40US a ton of avoided CO2."

Whatever the costs, two questions remain: Will we make the necessary adjustments to reduce emissions now and possibly reap the benefits of a new economy? And will we make the necessary lifestyle changes to make a difference quickly and efficiently?

For now, the IPCC report suggests we have the know-how and can make it work economically. What remains is the will to change for the sake of a future, especially a future that remains uncertain.

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