There's No Appetite For Kyoto II

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This week in Durban, South Africa, delegates from 194 countries are meeting at the UN-sponsored World Climate Change Conference to discuss, again, combating climate change by reduction of carbon emissions, which may be a cause of global warming.

One topic on their agenda is the fate of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was meant to curb our carbon emissions and which expires in 2012.

Their object: to persuade America and other industrialized countries to sign up for another round of greenhouse gas reductions, and to set up a $100 billion fund to help developing countries reduce their emissions. Early indications are that the meeting will achieve little.

At Monday's opening, South Africa's International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, president of the conference, rolled out the usual boilerplate. She told the delegates that she was hoping for "a balanced, fair, and credible outcome, with multilateralism, environmental integrity, fairness, and common, but differential responsibility."

Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, followed her, declaring that "This meeting needs to take the next decisive steps in the global response to climate change."

Ms. Figueres lectured, "To be a success, Durban needs to address further commitments of developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol."

The Durban gathering is another effort to combat global warming by reducing carbon consumption, an approach that could dampen economic activity just when there is risk of a new European recession.

There is another way to address the potential problem: geoengineering. It would be less disruptive of business activity, less threatening to employment, and it promises to be relatively inexpensive.

Most important, it would reduce warming even if certain countries who shall remain nameless did not agree to reduce their emissions.

Recall that the Kyoto Protocol set limits on 37 industrialized countries' emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. Signatory governments agreed to reduce their emissions by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012.

President Bill Clinton signed the agreement in 1997, but the Senate refused to ratify it, citing potential economic damage. In 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol.

With the world still recovering from the 2008 recession, and Europe possibly on the brink of another globally-destabilizing recession, there is not much appetite for a new Kyoto Protocol. Japan, Canada , and Russia will not sign. Europe will not sign unless America and China also sign, which is highly unlikely.

So, Kyoto seems destined to expire. Happily, the geoengineering approach is emerging as a substitute for or supplement to carbon reduction.

Some scientists, including Dutch Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, believe that altering some features of the Earth's environment would be a more cost-effective and efficient way to combat global warming. This is geoengineering.

Geoengineering includes reforestation, biomass burial, ocean fertilization to stimulate the growth of plankton, and carbon sequestration. A low-cost, high-return form of geoengineering is solar radiation management, which diminishes the warmth caused by the sun's rays.

One way to do this is by injecting fine sulfur particles or other reflective aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reflect incoming radiation. Another way is to spray clouds with salt water to increase their reflectance.

Clouds seeded with salt water would be thicker, and would reflect more heat back toward the sun, away from Earth. Cooling effects - as well as other, adverse consequences - have been observed after volcanic eruptions.

A third method is to make the surface of the planet more reflective, by brightening structures and painting roofs white, as well as increasing the reflectivity of deserts and oceans.

Successful geoengineering would permit the Earth's population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still achieve a retarding effect on global warming, but at a lower cost to economic activity.

Geoengineering solutions are less expensive than carbon reduction. University of Texas professor Eric Bickel and Hudson Institute fellow Lee Lane estimate that the discounted cost of enhancing clouds' reflectance through salt water spraying for 200 years could cost $300 million to $1.8 billion. The discounted global benefits over the same period would be $4 trillion to $10 trillion.

These costs are small in comparison to the economic damage that could result from reduced use of carbon fuels and the high cost of noncarbon substitutes, such as solar and wind power.

Further, if India and China don't also sign up to cut their carbon emissions-and they did not embrace Kyoto-these proposed dramatic cuts in American carbon emissions alone would not solve the problems of climate change.

For these reasons, geoengineering merits widespread attention. Even if other countries did nothing to reduce carbon use, successful geoengineering would have global effects and largely eliminate any need for carbon caps and the regulatory burden of monitoring and enforcement.

Geoengineering science is in its infancy and will not now attract the support of venture capital and private markets. Like national defense, climate change is at this stage a job for government. Yet it is astonishing how little federal funding is dedicated to it.

There appears to be no funding for geoengineering research in President Obama's 2012 budget, and calls to the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy were not returned.

A Government Accountability Office study published in 2010 found that a total of $950,000 was being spent on research on solar radiation management in fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

In comparison, billions of dollars are spent on conservation and renewable energy, such as wind and solar, and in 2010 Congress discussed imposing trillions of dollars as taxes on carbon emissions. Yet geoengineering, which could obviate most of the need for carbon cuts and enable us to avoid lifestyle changes, gets a tiny sum.

GAO recommended that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy define geoengineering and set clear research priorities. Research is needed to identify and avoid unintended consequences. Researchers should be empowered with funding to figure out what geoengineering can and cannot do.

With Southern Europe-Greece, Italy, Spain--facing economic collapse, and unemployment persistently high in America, there is no appetite for another costly round of greenhouse gas reductions at the UN climate change conference in Durban. For those concerned about global warming and climate change, it's time to look at simpler solutions provided by geoengineering.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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