A Climate Solution Concept

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While climate change is one of the most pressing problems facing the world, it is also proving to be one of the most intractable. Political, economic and cultural differences between countries have led to different policy choices. This paper examines several alternatives that might be considered as supplements to the evolving international, legally binding climate regime.

In particular, this paper proposes sub-global options – and focuses particular attention on examples of these that might be promoted by a Climate Working Group established by the Group of Eight industrialized nations (G8) to include G8 member countries plus a number of key developing countries such as China, India and Brazil. Two categories are discussed: technology options and the evolution of emissions markets outside of the Kyoto framework. Within the technology arena, numerous alternatives might be worth concerted attention of a Climate Working Group. This paper evaluates three:

  • Cleaning up coal. Today's coal-fired utilities largely employ a technology that makes capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the waste stream extremely difficult. Supporting the penetration of a new, although more expensive, technology – integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) – would allow significant reduction in these capture costs. Combined with the development of technologies to sequester carbon (still untested at commercial scales), a switch to this new technology could yield major CO2 savings: if all new coal fired power in the United States, China and India by 2030 were IGCC with carbon capture, nearly 900 million tons CO2 could be saved annually (or approximately 10 percent of these countries' annual CO2 emissions from power generation). This paper suggests that changes in policies on loan guarantees (e.g., in G8 countries Export Credit Agencies) could spur a shift to such new technology.
  • Promoting Biofuels. The transport sector accounts for approximately a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A successful switch away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources such as biofuels could dramatically reduce global emissions. One option to promote such fuel switching would be to redirect current national agricultural subsidies away from food crops and to energy crops. Such a change would not only provide incentives for the production of biofuels, but would simultaneously reduce global distortions in the international agricultural commodities market. At scale, such an effort could lead to major emissions reductions: converting currently subsidized crops in the U.S. to biofuel production could eliminate 10 percent of all U.S. road-related GHG emissions. Individual G8 efforts need not be harmonized, but could focus on specific crops of national relevance.
  • Helping hybrids. Another option for reducing transport-related emissions lies in dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency. One attractive technology is the hybrid gasoline/electric car – which can reduce fuel use by as much as 50 percent. Promoting the penetration of such vehicles (or other low emissions vehicles) into the market can be accomplished through efficiency standards, subsidies or through government purchasing programs. Such programs would primarily serve to "prime the pump" of the international market; over the longer term, it is anticipated that market forces would reduce the costs of these technologies, and allow the removal of any price subsidies.

It is clear that technology solutions will not, in isolation, drive adequate change. Some form of market signal is also likely to be required. To date, the most successful of these appears to be efforts to develop emissions trading programs – combining binding emissions targets with the option to trade allowances under the cap. Such a program was embraced in the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent accords, and a number of countries that are party to Kyoto have developed domestic systems. The European GHG market is the most evolved example of this.

While the U.S. and Australia have not ratified Kyoto, there is some prospect that national or sub-national emissions trading programs could be enacted in those countries, which could allow for some degree international interaction. Promoting efforts that lead to harmonized design of these regimes may allow for easier linking of these systems – and more critically, allow for them to be integrated globally once national programs are established.

A Climate Working Group could: (1) call on all its industrialized members to develop and implement national "cap and trade" programs, and (2) promote the development of common standards for measurement and reporting of reductions, as well as clear and compelling domestic compliance mechanisms, so as to facilitate the integration of trading systems. The Climate Working Group could also promote the development of common standards for project-based offsets, providing additional incentives for engaging developing countries.

While formal commitments at the next G8 meeting may be of an exploratory nature only, such agreements, if more fully implemented, could lead to substantial reductions in national – and global – GHG emissions.