Panel Calculates Cost of Global Warming Fix--Nations Could Afford Solutions, Scientists Say
By Marc Kaufman, Washington Post Staff WriterSaturday, May 5, 2007; A02
An international scientific panel for the first time yesterday put a price tag on what it would take to avoid the worst effects of global warming, concluding that the effort would be affordable and would be partially offset by economic and other benefits.
The most ambitious option, aimed at stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels by 2030, would require measures that would add $100 to the costs associated with each ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, said the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In a telephone news conference, several participants estimated that choosing that option could result in raising the cost of gasoline by up to one dollar a gallon over the next several decades.
Despite the likely costs, the consensus report of most of the world's governments said nations had no choice but to act. "If we continue doing what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble," said Ogunlade Davidson, co-chair of the working group responsible for the report on mitigating the effects of warming.
The White House quickly issued a statement rejecting the more aggressive options outlined by the report. Referring to the highest-cost scenario, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said it "would of course cause global recession, so that is something that we probably want to avoid."
Overall, the report said, blunting the consequences of global warming will require different lifestyles, higher prices for basics including gasoline and electricity, and a much greater investment in research and development efforts. The impact of those costs, however, would be significantly offset by the benefits of a less carbon-dependent economy, including a cleaner environment, more secure sources of energy and in some cases reduced costs for more energy-efficient cars, appliances and houses, the report said.
After five sometimes contentious days of negotiation to finalize the "Summary for Policymakers" at a conference in Bangkok, the panel issued the document without specific recommendations on how best to address the threat from global warming. Instead, it offered projections of how much carbon dioxide would have to be eliminated to meet various goals for limiting greenhouse gases, along with assessments of hundreds of approaches.
The U.S. delegation embraced parts of the report, especially those highlighting possible new clean-energy technologies. But in his opening statement to a news conference yesterday, conference chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri said that "it is probably naive to believe that merely developing technologies in labs and workshops is the answer."
Pachauri said it will be necessary to put a price on carbon emissions, either through taxes or "cap and trade" systems, in which polluters buy and sell rights to put given amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Unless governments take action and "market forces [are] present to attach a price to carbon, we're not likely to get a major dissemination of technologies, no matter how meritorious they may be," he added.
While the report did not specify what that price should be, it outlined how much benefit would come at various cost levels -- $20, $50 or $100 per ton of emitted carbon. The world could meet the goal of stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases by 2030, the report said, at a sacrifice of less than 3 percent of the projected growth in the world's total economic output, or 0.12 percent annually. In other words, the world economy could still grow robustly, but at a slightly slower rate, while nations take steps to avoid severe climate change.
Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the European Union has created an exchange in which the current market price for a ton of emissions is about $25. That price rises and falls with market forces and may change as the E.U. commitments under the protocol toughen in 2008.
Jonathan Pershing, one of the lead authors of the report and a program director of the World Resources Institute, said estimates of potential price increases for gas and other energy sources were not included in the report because they were based on assumptions that have not been well studied. He said the calculation of a $1-per-gallon gas price increase under the most aggressive carbon-reduction plan is based on the amount of carbon dioxide released when burning a gallon of gas.
Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- produced by power plants, industry, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, burning forests, some agricultural activity and methane from decomposing waste -- have risen by 70 percent since 1970, the climate panel reported in February.
If nations do not begin to control emissions better, that level of heat-trapping gases is projected to increase by an additional 25 to 90 percent by 2030, with potentially calamitous results, especially in poorer nations. The effects would include a surge in ocean levels, the disappearance of a large number of species, abrupt climate changes in tropical zones and possibly large migrations of displaced people.
The panel's reports are based on research by a broad range of scientists, and the resulting policy assessments were negotiated by government representatives until they reached a consensus. Some climate experts said that process led to conservative documents that do not take into account the most recent discoveries -- such as findings that the Arctic ice cap appears to be melting at a much faster rate than described in the February IPCC report.
The two biggest producers of greenhouse gases are the United States and China, and both objected to many conclusions of the draft report sent months ago to the 120 participating nations.
Connaughton's concerns yesterday about the economic effects of an aggressive campaign to reduce greenhouse gases reflected one aspect of the Bush administration policy on climate change. Another was highlighted by Harlan L. Watson, head of the U.S. delegation in Bangkok, who said the report affirms "the importance of a portfolio of clean energy technologies consistent with our approach."
Other participants, including Stavros Dimas, E.U. environment commissioner, emphasized the report's conclusion that even dramatic steps would be technically and economically feasible.
"There is no excuse for waiting," he said. "It is now time for the rest of the international community to follow our lead and commit to ambitious reduction targets."
The panel's report said that energy efficiencies and many new low-carbon technologies are within reach but that governments are not spending enough on research.
"Government funding in real absolute terms for most energy research programs has been flat or declining for nearly two decades, and is now about half of the 1980 level," the report said. Officials said that since the United States first called in 1990 for voluntary rather than mandatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, U.S. emissions have increased by 28 percent while federal funding for climate change research has declined significantly.
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