In this regard, an NGO called Warm Heart Worldwide offers the most succinct overview we at EnvironCompass have seen. It expounds on the issue as follows:
To date, the effort to manage climate change has been a matter of high level diplomatic negotiations involving states and international organizations.
NGOs, business groups, and minor political actors have also made some limited contributions.
Collective effort is of cardinal importance due to the fact that global climate change affects us all, but individual countries can manage only the activities that take place within their borders, whereas to confront a global problem, mankind needs a global solution.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions have the same impact on the atmosphere whether they originate in Washington, London or Beijing. Consequently, action by one country to reduce emissions will do little to slow global warming unless other countries act as well.
Ultimately, an effective strategy will require commitments and action by all the major emitting countries.”
The global effort to manage climate change has been organized through what is called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
The UNFCCC was launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to achieve GHG concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
It also set voluntary GHG emissions reductions that countries did not meet.
With the failure of the Rio initiatives, the then 191 signatories to the UNFCCC agreed to meet in Kyoto in 1997 to establish a more stringent regime. The resulting Kyoto Protocol created a global trading system for carbon credits and binding GHG reductions for ratifying countries.
(The US did not sign; China and India were exempt as developing countries.) So-called Conferences of the Parties (COPs) were held almost annually thereafter in places such as The Hague, Cancun and Doha without progress being made. (Following the failure of the 2012 Doha meetings, the Kyoto carbon trading system collapsed.)
The difficulties related to climate change mitigation are quite astounding – Why are seemingly straight forward and logical issues so hard to manage?
Managing climate change difficulties arise from two, related reasons: climate change management is viewed as expensive and it poses what we call a collective action problem.
• When business and politicians talk about climate change, the first thing they mention is cost. If you start from the status quo today, adding CO2 removing equipment to a coal power plant is expensive – but only if you do not value the environment.
When you buy coal for a power plant, you pay for a limited resource and the cost of supplying it to you.
Today, when you dump the GHGs and black carbon from burning coal into the air, you pay nothing. But a clean atmosphere is a limited resource; the atmosphere will absorb only so much GHGs and black carbon before it is not clean, at which point it is costly to clean it.
Logically, there is no reason why businesses that pay for a scarce resource like coal as an input should not pay for a scarce resource like the environment as a disposal site.
This is called “costing” or “accounting” the environment. If the environment is included among the basic costs of doing business that all businesses plan into their profit and loss statements, then “managing climate change” would no longer be an expensive extra. It would be a standard cost of doing business.
Today, however, no one values the environment and, therefore, environmental expenses are considered to be expensive “extras”.
What is a collective action problem?
• Collective action problems arise when all of the members of a large group enjoy a resource equally – say clean air – but protecting that resource must be paid for by each group member.
When such situations arise – especially when the cost of protection is high – each member really, really wants his/her neighbors to pay and to avoid paying him/herself. Each person’s thinking is simple: “I’m just one person. If I don’t contribute, it won’t make any difference to the total amount of money raised, but it will save me money – and I will still get to breathe clean air!
In our case, everyone enjoys a world which is not too hot and the climate is normal, but who wants to pay to change our dependence on cars and trucks and plastics and and and? So what happens?
Where there are collective action problems there are collective action failures – and the higher the cost to each actor, the more likely the actor is to “free ride” – that is, to welch on his/her commitment and hope that others will pay (which they don’t for the same reason).
In the case of managing climate change difficulties, as in all such cases, collective action failure means that all of us end up with less of what we want – an end to climate change.
What does this portend for the current process?
• Don’t hold your breath. Slowing global and domestic growth, rising global and domestic divisions, especially the increasingly strident “us first” tone of domestic politics worldwide, and increasingly unsure leaders everywhere do not bode well for the kind of strong leadership by a small group of critical players necessary to overcome collective action problems.
If you want to learn more, Warmheart Worldwide informs us that:
• Many authors – academics, clerics, diplomats – have written on why progress toward a meaningful climate change treaty has been so slow, difficult and ultimately disappointing. You might want to start with a few of the following authors.
None of these articles or authors are well known, but each comes to the subject from a different perspective – the Pontificate, a Nordic think tank, an Ecosocialist blog, an academic journal, a German magazine – and applies very different analytic tools.
Warmheart Worldwide notes that what is interesting is that beneath all of their differences (not least of jargon), all of these authors come to essentially the same conclusion for the same reasons.
- Scott Barrett
- A. Vilma and H. van Aselt
- C. Williams
- Jon Hovi, Tora Skodvin, and Stine Aaker
- Oliver Geden
What more can we do to manage climate change?
It is clear that even if the international community manages to make further progress, it has a long way to go before it has exhausted its current agenda of negotiated restrictions on carbon emissions.
It should also be clear that even with unimaginably successful negotiations, restrictions on carbon emissions will not do the job.
To be blunt: there is too much carbon in the atmosphere and existing technology – cars, factories, airplanes, ships, buildings – will continue to emit huge amounts more into the foreseeable future.
The only thing to do is to reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon.
There are many experiments underway to find ways to do this. So far, only a few processes show promise. While different in many ways, these processes are similar in one critical way: they all remove carbon from the atmosphere by converting it into an inert form that can be sequestered permanently, that is, returned to a form where, like the fossil carbon forms, it is truly out of sight, out of mind and out of the atmosphere – forever.
New techniques for doing this are remarkably simple chemically, but the innovations in business modeling to make them work are complex. In Iceland, for example, scientists have demonstrated that CO2 pumped underground into porous basalt formations will quickly turn to stone.
(Ten percent of continental land and the entire seabed are basalt; the technology already costs less than one half as much as current (and unreliable) underground sequestration techniques.)
Another technology passes air across a huge surface of flowing alkali bath to capture CO2 so that it can then be converted to pellets.
(Unfortunately, because CO2 is just 0.04% of the air, meaningful systems will have to be huge and much more efficient.) In each case, and in those of many other possible technologies, the issues are not scientific, but how to scale production cost-effectively.
Can we do even more? A
The second method of sequestration is at least 4,000 years old: biochar production. The “pyrolysis” of biomass, or heating it to high temperatures (450⁰-750⁰ C) in the absence of oxygen produces a pure form of carbon known as “biochar.”
From a global climate change point of view, biochar production has great potential as it eliminates all of the black carbon and long-term GHGs from biomass burning, and is carbon negative.
Estimates of sequestration rates vary, but by atomic weight, the production of 1 ton of biochar permanently removes 3 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, as well as 6 kilograms of particulates and large amounts of NOx and SO2.
Widespread biochar production in the developing world where most agricultural waste is field burned would annually remove millions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, and eliminate millions of tons of black carbon and GHGs.