Facing the Problem

The buck stops here

Options to address global warming are varied and complex. This section will provide an overview of the scope of the problem and explain some of the political challenges facing the US and the world.

An alternative scenario

Effective policy requires goals. The overriding concern must be to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” as expressed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. All major nations, including the United States, agreed to this principle. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s many adopted the position that anything beyond 2 ° of warming above pre-industrial levels was considered dangerous, and we’ve already warmed 0.6 to 0.8 °. However, from previous sections we know that certain tipping points are of immediate concern because they may occur with very little additional warming. Policy that sets inadequate goals is like driving off a cliff at 50 mph versus 100 mph. In the end, it makes little difference.

James Hansen, the outspoken chief climate scientist of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), has long advocated what he calls the “alternative scenario” (AS), which is a pathway that keeps additional warming below 1 °.[1]

The AS was resisted by the Clinton administration and some environmentalists when it was first proposed because it emphasized the importance of the non-CO2 causes of anthropogenic warming. Of course, CO2 remains the single largest problem to address, but the other greenhouse gases are significant when added together, representing almost a quarter of the problem — shown below by CH4 (methane), N2O, (nitrous oxide) and flourinated-gases (CFCs).[2]

Compared to the IPCC scenarios, the AS calls for stronger cuts in CO2 and puts particular emphasis on reducing methane and certain warming aerosols. Without dramatic reductions in non-CO2 emissions, an implausibly rapid reduction of CO2 would be required to meet the 1 ° goal.

Non-CO2 greenhouse gases

A significant cause of warming has been brought under control, and it is a major success story for international cooperation. The Montreal Protocol was set up to reduce emissions of ozone-depleting CFCs, which are also extremely powerful greenhouse gases. Since 1990, the combined emissions of these gases have dropped dramatically.

After CO2, the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas is methane, which is roughly 20 times more powerful than CO2. Humans have more than doubled the amount of methane in the atmosphere through a number of sources, such as landfills, leakage during fossil fuel production, and from belching livestock and their manure. From many of these sources, methane can be captured before it escapes into the atmosphere. In reality, methane is natural gas, which is a relatively clean burning fuel. When natural gas is burned, CO2 is emitted but that is less of a problem than if the methane were released directly into the atmosphere.

Ozone is another powerful greenhouse gas and is the primary component of photochemical smog. Ozone is good when it is in the stratosphere since it blocks cancer causing ultra-violet radiation. However, near the surface it is a public health menace. Most human caused ozone is not directly emitted by our activities. Instead it forms when certain pollution reacts with the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight. Methane is one such cause, so reducing it also reduces ozone. Other pollutants that create ozone are various nitrogen oxides (”NOx“) and carbon monoxide from vehicle and industrial emissions. Ground level ozone kills many thousands of people in the United States alone, so reducing this pollution should be given even higher priority.

Another non-CO2 greenhouse gas is nitrous oxide, which is primarily emitted due fertilizer. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more powerful than CO2.

The aerosol paradox[3]

Aerosols are small particles, not greenhouse gases, but they still cause changes to the climate. Cleaning up these emissions improves health and the environment but there is an unfortunate side effect: it makes global warming worse. However, although aerosols cause cooling of the surface overall, they also cause warming depending on their type and location. The best solution is to target certain sources of aerosols for immediate reduction.

A significant cause of warming wherever there is snow is black carbon or “soot.” For example, diesel engines produce large amounts of soot. When it falls on snow, more heat is retained and it melts faster.

Another cause of aerosol-related warming is the so-called “atmospheric brown clouds.” The clouds dim the surface, causing cooling below, but the clouds themselves absorb heat, warming the atmosphere. For example, pollution forms in highly populated areas of India and then drifts into the Himalayas. The high altitude Himalayan glaciers bear the brunt of this warming, accelerating their melting. In addition, the reduction of solar radiation reaching the surface reduces evaporation from the Indian ocean, potentially disrupting the Indian summer monsoon (see previous section). A significant cause of this pollution is from burning firewood and animal dung. This is a major health risk for dense urban populations.These non-CO2 factors are certainly difficult problems, but they are trivial compared to controlling CO2.

The scope of the CO2 problem

About 80% of world’s energy is produced from fossil fuels. As a result, Human beings emit about 30 Gt (”gigatonnes” or billion metric tons) of CO2 annually, and this number is increasing (bottom chart). In addition, humans are changing the land through deforestation and by the draining and burning of peatland, which adds another 8 Gt (top chart).[4]

Sometimes emissions are given in terms of the amount of carbon within the CO2, excluding the weight of the oxygen. In those terms, we emit about 8 Gt of carbon from fossil fuels and another 2 due to land use changes.

Cutting carbon

In 2004, an influential paper was published that described the problem of growing CO2 emissions in terms of “stabilization wedges” as shown below.[5]

Expected future emissions are represented by the top arrow. To stabilize at current levels, the cumulative emissions represented by the green “stabilization triangle” must be eliminated. To keep the goals manageable, the triangle was broken into wedges each representing 1 Gt of avoided carbon in 2054. Thus, each potential technology or strategy is evaluated based on how many wedges it could conceivably eliminate over the course of 50 years. The authors assume 7 Gt of carbon emitted annually in 2004, and 14 Gt of carbon emitted in 2054. To stabilize emissions at 2004 levels, 7 wedges were required.

Unfortunately, the current growth rate is much higher than assumed, and we are currently at 8 Gt of carbon not 7. Also, if the goal is to limit atmospheric CO2 to 450 ppm, merely maintaining current emissions is not adequate. Global emissions must be cut by roughly 50% or more by 2050 in order to achieve this. In reality, we will need 14 or more wedges depending on how fast energy demand continues to grow.[6]

“The US has lowered its carbon intensity!”

Often you will hear about how the United States has lowered its “carbon intensity.” This is a term used by economists that describes the amount of emitted carbon in relation to the size of the economy. If the economy grows faster than CO2, then the “carbon intensity” is decreased, even though the amount of emitted CO2 has increased.[7]

The climate does not care about the economy. All it cares about in this context is the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and any increase is the wrong direction.

“It’s all just ‘Blame America First’!”

After Australia ratified Kyoto in 2007, the US became the only developed country to reject the treaty. Kyoto is often attacked as being irrelevant to solving the problem, but that was not its goal. It was intended as the first step toward a global solution. Kyoto is far from perfect and its goals are inadequate. Its mistakes should (and must) be addressed when it is replaced in 2012 and the US must be a part of the solution.

The question of who cuts their emissions and by how much is the touchiest subject when it comes to international agreements. For the US, it is by far the most controversial aspect of Kyoto. At present, developing countries are not required to cut emissions, which made ratification of Kyoto a political impossibility in the United States for two primary reasons. One is the belief that it is “unfair” to require the US to cut emissions while countries such as China and India are exempt. The second was that companies would just export their emissions to foreign countries by moving economic activity there — an argument with some merit.

As of 2004, each American was responsible for 5.6 tonnes of carbon annually. The average Chinese citizen was responsible for 1.1, and the average Indian about 0.3.[8] Asking the average Chinese or Indian citizen to cut emissions might require them to give up what we consider the essentials of life. Asking an American to cut emissions by the same proportion might mean replacing old appliances, installing a new thermostat or replacing windows - something that should be done anyway based entirely on economic grounds.

The other reason why it is fair for developed countries to cut first and most is because we are responsible for the high CO2 concentration that exists today, and thus the current amount of warming.[9]

The developing countries become more of a factor every year, but their cumulative contribution is much less than the developed world. Our emissions are the result of prosperity and we should therefore take the most responsibility for solving a problem that we did the most to create.The developing world is fully aware of these facts and any international agreement will reflect these realities. Of course, everyone must eventually bring down their emissions. It is for these reasons that although the world as a whole will have to cut emissions by about 50% by 2050, the developed countries will have to cut their emissions by 80% or more.

“Not an inch to the west and not an inch to the east!”[10]

To many, action is pointless because they believe China will never act to reduce their emissions. That is, China’s economy is growing so rapidly that any reduction we make will be offset by increases from China. From the Chinese perspective, however, the US didn’t have to contend with such international pressure to conserve during its growth, so why should China?

Despite political grandstanding, both countries’ scientists are telling their governments the same thing. China signs off on the IPCC reports just as the US does. Projected climate change would be disastrous for the Chinese, and their government knows it. Furthermore, the US is China’s principle market for its products. Other markets, such as Europe, Japan, and other Asian countries already support emissions cuts. The missing piece is the US. If the US is on board, China (and India) will follow.

A price on carbon

In order to reduce emissions, “a price on carbon” is required. Global warming is something called an “externality” in economics. It is something whose cost is not tied directly to the expense of the product. For example, if you dump raw sewage into the river, it costs you nothing, but it costs everyone downstream. Also, since you are likely to be downstream from someone else, they could be treating you the same courtesy. Therefore, we fine someone who pollutes recklessly. Because CO2 is well-mixed throughout the atmosphere and lasts for centuries, everyone living now and in the foreseeable future is downstream from us and our ancestors.

By putting a price on carbon, the cost of this externality is finally realized. Activities that don’t emit CO2, such as renewable energy, will better compete with fossil fuels. As the price of carbon gradually increases and alternative energies become more mature, fossil fuels will become less attractive from an economic standpoint.

There are two ways to accomplish this. Most economists favor a carbon tax: you pay a tax to the government for the CO2 you emit. However, in the United States, the word “tax” is political poison. The favored method of controlling greenhouse gases in the US is “cap and trade,” which is the system that the Europeans adopted. As explained in section 1, cap and trade sets limits for economic sectors, and in the case of Europe, entire governments, each with their own internal targets. Anyone emitting more than their cap must buy carbon credits from those emitting less than their cap. The cap is periodically reduced, so it becomes more difficult to come in under the cap. The “carbon credits” themselves are traded in a system much like a stock market. Each credit represents the cost of a tonne of carbon (not a tonne of CO2). Cap and trade systems are complex and there is opportunity for fraud if it isn’t designed properly. They must address all sources of greenhouse gases[11] fairly, as some sources are harder to reduce than others.

With such a system, there are two ways of allocating the initial carbon credits. The first is to simply give them to the emitters based on past emissions (grandfathering). This is popular with industry for obvious reasons, but unpopular with environmentalists because it essentially rewards companies and industries with high emissions. The other method allocates the credits with an auction. A certain number of credits are offered to the market, and the emitters bid for their initial allotment. That way, the market determines who gets the credits and how much they’re worth. When the credits are given away, the number of credits given to emitters is decided by the government, as is the initial price of carbon when the trading system commences. Non-CO2 emissions are regulated as well, except in terms of their CO2 equivalence. For example, a tonne of emitted Methane carries about 20 times the penalty of a tonne of emitted CO2.

The problem of exporting emissions overseas can be addressed by charging companies who manufacture in developing countries for the emissions that their products create. Imported goods from countries with no carbon controls would have to pay a tariff. Such tariffs are tricky business because they would involve the approval World Trade Organization (WTO), which is very bureaucratic and very difficult to establish tariffs because of so many vested interests.

In both the case of a carbon tax and cap and trade, the result is that markets respond to increased cost and quickly find the most inexpensive path.

Is this fair?

Any increase in the cost of fossil fuels will raise the price of virtually everything. This will put an additional burden on the average family. Any fair system would have to be “revenue neutral,” or nearly so. That is, the total revenue flowing into and out of the government would not change. Since everyone owns an equal share of the atmosphere, the money raised by a carbon tax or by the auction of carbon credits, should be returned to the population in equal shares. In the US, this might be accomplished by increasing the income tax standard deduction and exemptions, or by lowering the payroll (Social Security) tax. The revenue from the carbon tax or auctions would go to the treasury to make up the difference. Although the cost of living will increase, the amount of take home pay increases as well. One particularly simple suggestion is to return the revenue directly to the people in the same fashion that the citizens of Alaska receive royalties from the oil companies. This idea is called the “Sky Trust”[12] or “cap and dividend.”

If the system is designed properly, it wouldn’t take long for the average person to recognize that it pays to avoid carbon intensive energies or products. Someone using less than “their fair share” of carbon would come out with a net gain, while someone using more would come out a loser. Of course, anyone can emit as much as they want, but they will have to pay for that privilege.

“It will bankrupt us!”

The cost of mitigating climate change will be quite high. To some, that makes it not worth doing.The EPA was directed to do an economic analysis of the Lieberman-Warner (L-W) Climate Security Act. To date, this is the most comprehensive global warming abatement bill to reach the floor of the US Senate. L-W requires a 56% reduction in greenhouse gases by the year 2050. The bill has its flaws, but it is a start. The EPA calculated that L-W would result in a 2.4% to 6.9% drop in gross domestic product by the year 2050. The reduction on an annual basis comes to an average of 0.08%. Below shows the effect on the economy if the bill was enacted (red) vs. the reference case (blue). Each graph represents a different economic model.[13]

Put another way, the size of the economy in 2050 under the bill would be no lower than the size of the economy in 2045 if no law was enacted. That is trifling compared to the consequences of doing nothing. For example, how much is the water supply of the western United States worth?

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story. This particular analysis only looked at the cost of deploying new technologies. It didn’t consider the economic benefits. Mitigating global warming will require a huge investment in technology and infrastructure, and investment is seldom bad for business. The jobs that are created, such as installing solar panels, erecting wind turbines, replacing transmission lines, and renovating buildings cannot be outsourced. Likewise, instead of investing in technologies that extract and transport finite resources, a great deal of which comes from foreign countries, the money is spent developing the means to tap domestic fuels (sun, wind, geothermal) that never run out. These fuels are not traded by markets as commodities. The expense comes from building and maintaining the infrastructure, not the ongoing expense of the fuels themselves.

Likewise, reducing fossil fuel dependence simultaneously reduces all of the pollution that they produce, such as mercury or the precursors to ozone. This would directly lead to an improvement in health and a reduction in the cost of healthcare. The costs are manageable and the benefits are strongly positive.


[1] (Hansen J. , et al., 2007) Online here.

[2] (Rogner, et al., 2007) Online here. Adapted from figure 1.1b

[3] (Ramanathan, 2007) Online here.

[4] Ibid.

[5] (Pacala & Socolow, 2004) Online here.

[6] (Romm, 2008) Online here.

[7] (Energy Information Administration, 2007) Online here. (Energy Information Administration, 2007) Online here.

[8] (Marland, Boden, & Andres) Online here.

[9] (Hansen J. , et al., 2007) Online here.

[10] (Dr. Suess) Online here.

[11] (Rogner, et al., 2007) Online here. Figure 1.3b

[12] (Barnes, 2007) Online here.

[13] (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2008) Online here.

Sources cited in Addressing the Problem

Barnes, P. (2007, September 11). Carbon Capping: Let’s Do it Right! Retrieved August 17, 2008, from Step It Up 2007: http://stepitup2007.org/article.php?id=472

Dr. Suess. (n.d.). The Zax. Retrieved August 17, 2008, from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfI9e4BX0lU

Energy Information Administration. (2007, October 1). Energy Related Carbon Intensity. Retrieved August 17, 2008, from EIA: http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/tableh1gco2.xls

Energy Information Administration. (2007, September 18). Total Emissions. Retrieved August 17, 2008, from EIA: http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/tableh1gco2.xls

Hansen, J., Sato, M., Ruedy, R., Kharecha, P., Lacis, A., Miller, R., et al. (2007). Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics , 2287-2312.

Marland, G., Boden, T., & Andres, B. (n.d.). Per Capita Emissions. Retrieved August 17, 2008, from CDIAC: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/top2004.cap

Pacala, S., & Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science , 305, 968-972.

Ramanathan, V. (2007, October 18). Role of Black Carbon in Global and Regional Climate Changes. Retrieved August 17, 2008, from Prof. V. (Ram) Ramanathan: http://www-ramanathan.ucsd.edu/testimonials/BlackCarbonHearing-testimony.pdf

Rogner, H.-H., Zhou, D., Bradley, R., Crabbé, P., Edenhofer, O., Hare, B., et al. (2007). Introduction. In B. Metz, O. Davidson, P. Bosch, R. Dave, & L. Meyer (Eds.), Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (pp. 95-116). Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Romm, J. (2008, April 22). Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution. Retrieved September 14, 2008, from Climate Progress: http://climateprogress.org/2008/04/22/is-450-ppm-or-less-politically-possible-part-2-the-solution/

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2008, March 14). EPA Analysis of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008. Retrieved August 17, 2008, from EPA: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/downloads/s2191_EPA_Analysis.pdf