In their quest to demonstrate climate leadership ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, world leaders were once again talking about ambitious carbon reduction targets. US President Joe Biden, for example, has set a goal to create “a carbon-free energy sector by 2035 and a zero-emission net economy no later than 2050.”
Most governments of rich countries have formulated similar ambitious goals.
Unfortunately, these targets will be too expensive. A new study in the journal Nature shows a 95 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 – almost zero net that would cost 11.9 percent of GDP or more than $ 11,000 dollars per US citizen each year.
Twenty-four years have passed since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the first major global agreement promising to reduce carbon emissions. Since then, the world has hosted hundreds of climate conferences and rich countries have certainly spoken green, but emissions have continued to rise because leaders do not want to raise the grand prize to the people.
In a candid analysis of the last decade of climate policy, the UN calls 2010 a “lost decade.” It can not distinguish between what has happened and a world that has not adopted new climate policies since 2005. Just think about it: after all these climate meetings and all these climate promises, when we look at current emissions we can not distinguish the change from the world we are in and a world where we were not interested in doing anything about the climate crisis since 2005.
This puts in perspective the challenge facing the UN Climate Change Conference. World leaders can choose to do what they have done over the decades and contribute to another climate meeting in a world full of well-meaning climate conferences. Countries will make nice promises like transforming the electricity sector (which is responsible for only 19 percent of all the energy the world consumes) into renewable sources. There is a good chance that those promises will eventually be revealed to be just as empty as the promises of the last decade, because voters will reject the bill.
Or leaders can go the other way.
The real challenge with the current approach to climate policy is that as long as emissions reductions remain expensive, leaders will talk a lot but can do little. In the rich world, this is to avoid following the embarrassing footsteps of French President Emmanuel Macron, who had to retreat to the “yellow vest” movement after proposing a modest increase in gasoline prices. And poorer countries have far more important priorities, including boosting economic growth and lifting their populations out of poverty.
What is needed is a sharper focus on green energy research. If the world could create or “develop” green energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels, we would have solved the problem of global warming. And not just rich and well-meaning countries, but every nation, including China and India, would switch to clean energy. Working with 27 of the world’s leading climate economists and three Nobel Prize winners, the Copenhagen Consensus found that the most effective and long-term climate policy is investing far more resources in green research and development.
During the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris, more than 20 countries, including China, pledged to double Research and Development spending on green energy innovation by 2020. Unfortunately, most of them have failed.
Instead of making big and expensive promises, future governments will have to step down once citizens start protesting against rising energy bills, leaders must immediately commit to spending much more on green research and development .
And the total cost for each country will be much lower than that under current climate policies. For 2030, our Nobel Prize-winning economists have suggested that the world increase its spending by another $ 70 billion a year. Compare that to the $ 195 billion we are currently spending on subsidizing inefficient green energy.
At the Glasgow Climate Conference, world leaders would be advised not to repeat what has failed in recent decades, but to point out a cheaper, smarter path that will actually help mitigate climate change: Growth drastic investment in green development can help the whole world switch from fossil fuels to clean energy.
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