24 November 2009

Future Generations? Who Cares?

Will Global Climate Change be a Big Problem for Future Generations? And Who Cares?

Nearly everybody agrees that global climate change is real, and that it is mostly caused by our recent and continuing emissions of greenhouse gases. But how big a problem will it be? We have to answer this question in order to figure out how much to spend today to reduce the pace and impact of global warming in the future. Here's the question:

How much are you willing to give up today to minimize the costs human-caused global climate change will impose on future generations?

The answer to this question depends on two factors:
  • How great will be the costs to society in the future due to climate change we could have prevented today? And
  • How much do we care about the costs borne by future generations?
Most people will say, "Of course I care a lot about the pain I might be causing future generations!" But the evidence does not support this. How much would you pay today to prevent a million children from dying during the coming year from a cause that you could mitigate?

About one million children die of malaria annually in Africa. Distribution of insecticide-treated bed netting could prevent hundreds of millions of cases of malaria next year. To provide every susceptible family in Africa with such protection would cost around $1 billion (about 200 million nets at $5 each). The people of the rich nations of the world are evidently not willing to spend this amount (your share, if you live in a developed country, would be about $1).

Do we care more about future generations than we do about our fellow Earthlings alive today? Would you give up a dollar today to prevent a million people from dying due to the impact of global warming in 2100?

How Much Will It Cost Future Generations?

There are many studies attempting to quantify the losses future generations will suffer due to the climate change we and our forebears are causing. Two of the best are the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change and a recent study by Resources for the Future. These reports use different methods to come to similar conclusions:

Stern: "Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more."

Sterner and Persson, RFF: "Total damages in our case amount to slightly more than 2 percent of the GDP for a temperature increase of 2.5°C."

Current world GDP is about $65 trillion (figured at purchasing power parity). A 2% loss today would be about $1.3 trillion (1.3x1012). Five percent would be more than $3 trillion. And that cost would probably not be distributed equitably, but would fall most heavily on the poor.

How Much Would It Cost Us Today To Spare Future Generations That Pain?

Of course the rich countries would be the ones which would have to make the sacrifice today, because:
  • They have the money (people living on $1 per day can't afford to give up any consumption--they'd starve), and
  • They caused the problem.
The Stern Report estimates that to avoid a 5% or greater loss of consumption on the part of our successors in the future we would have to give up only 1% of consumption today. ("In contrast, the costs of action -- reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change -- can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.") One percent of current global GDP is about $700 billion. The per capita share of that sum for people in the developed countries would be $700 per year.

Would you be willing to give up a few hundred dollars a year -- about $2 per day (say in carbon taxes) to prevent the worst effects of future global warming? Let your elected representatives know your answer.

Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change
RFF analysis
Malaria in Africa
More Insecticide-Treated Nets Needed For African Households
CIA World Factbook

22 November 2009

Climate Change League Table-Update

Russia Leapfrogs Germany!

Who is leading in the Challenge of our Age, the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions? HaraBara compared the commitments and targets announced by various countries. We adjusted them to a common baseline: Emission reductions between 1990 and 2020. (We used the emission data in FCCC/SBI/2008/12 found here.) Here are the results.

The Russian Federation recently announced it will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 20-25% below 1990 levels by 2020. This means its absolute tonnage reductions will be more than Germany's.

Norway has said it will reduce its emissions to 60% of 1990 levels by 2020. This is the deepest cut of any potential signatory to a Copenhagen agreement. Scotland has promised more, and Germany as much, but they are both part of the European Union which has only pledged to cut 20%.

Country Emissions Reduction, % 2020 compared to 1990
Scotland -42%
Norway -40%
Germany -40%
United Kingdom -34%
France -26%
Japan -25%
EU -20%
Switzerland -20%
Russian Federation -20%
New Zealand -10%
USA -4%
Canada -1%
Australia +13%

Here is what the rankings look like if you compare how many tonnes of GHG are emitted in 2020 compared to 1990 (in millions of tonnes CO2 equivalent per year). How can Switzerland commit to reduce emissions more than Canada, in absolute tonnes, or Japan more than the U.S.?

Country Emissions Reduction, Mt 2020 compared to 1990
EU -849
Russian Federation -665
Germany -491
Japan -318
United Kingdom -262
USA -236
France -145
Scotland -28
Norway -14
Switzerland -10
Canada -5
New Zealand -4
Australia +54

This graph sums it up, and it is not a picture to be proud of. And of course these are just "targets". The total reductions hoped for by the countries declared so far come to only 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2020.

04 November 2009

German Chancellor Begs Congress on Climate Challenges

German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel gave what may someday be remembered as one of the great speeches of our time before a joint session of Congress yesterday. Here is the relevant part:

Ladies and gentlemen,

The fact that global challenges can only be met by comprehensive international cooperation is also shown by a third great challenge of the 21st century, by a wall, so to speak, separating the present from the future. That wall prevents us from seeing the needs of future generations, it prevents us from taking the measures urgently needed to protect the very basis of our life and climate.

We can already see where this wasteful attitude towards our future leads: In the Arctic ice­bergs are melting, in Africa people are becoming refugees due to environmental damage, and global sea levels are rising. I am pleased that you in your work together with President Obama attach such significance to protecting our climate. For we all know: We have no time to lose! We need an agreement at the climate conference in Copenhagen in December. We have to agree on one objective – global warming must not exceed two degrees Celsius.

To achieve this we need the readiness of all nations to assume internationally binding obli­gations. We cannot afford failure with regard to achieving the climate protection objectives scientists tell us are crucial. That would not only be irresponsible from an ecological point of view, but would also be technologically short-sighted, for the development of new tech­nologies in the energy sector offers major opportunities for growth and jobs in the future.

No doubt about it – in December the world will look to us, to Europe and America. It is true that there can be no agreement without China and India accepting obligations, but I am convinced that if we in Europe and America show that we are ready to accept binding obligations, we will also be able to persuade China and India to join in. And then, in Copen­hagen, we will be able to tear down the wall between the present and the future – in the interests of our children and grandchildren and of sustainable development worldwide.

Most American new media didn't even cover the speech, which had unfortunate timing. Though close to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this first Tuesday in November generated a lot of election news, which pushed the Bundeskanzlerin's remarks far off the front page.

Using Atmosphere As Toilet? Please Deposit $50

If you are emitting greenhouse gases you are probably imposing a cost on society in the range of $20 to $100 per ton of CO2 equivalent, and possibly much more.

When researchers at the New York University School of Law sent a questionnaire to 289 economists who had published at least one article on climate change in a top-rated economics journal in the past 15 years they asked: "The global 'social cost of carbon' per metric ton—i.e. the net present value of the marginal impact over time caused by the emission today of one ton of carbon dioxide‐equivalent greenhouse gasses—is most likely: _____".

They got 84 answers. The median answer was $50 per ton. The mode was $50 per ton. The average was $107 per ton (discarding the two highest answers, which were twenty times higher than the next highest).

"Perhaps the response that best captures the uncertainty regarding the damages generated by greenhouse gas emission was: 'No one knows, including me.' " But the consensus among the respondents was that there clearly is a social cost, and it is likely in the range of $20-100 per ton.

So if you are emitting greenhouse gases by driving your car or operating your coal-fired power plant, there should be a box nearby where you should deposit $50-100 or so for each ton you pass, to be sent to those who suffer harm from those emissions. Or are you one of those who feels it is OK to use other people's space as your toilet?