Recent UN climate negotiation failure leaves few good choices

By Brent Sohngen

See original post in Columbus Dispatch

Predictably, the recent United Nations meeting on climate change ended with lots of headlines and even more heartburn. The U.S. is again the grand villain of the negotiations, but we have been joined by Brazil and Australia. China and India are balking at more-stringent targets in the coming years, hinting that these annual negotiations will become tougher, not easier. Europe remains the leader in climate talk, pledging to become carbon neutral by 2050.

So why, despite the recent United Nations report outlining the dire conditions of climate change and the youth movement that has galvanized so much public opinion, do our politicians hang up their gloves and head out of the ring before the fight is won? In the U.S., long a holdout in international climate negotiations, public opinion polls now show that society believes climate change is an important threat to our economic security. Even the farm community, facing too much rain in the spring and too little in the summer, seems more willing than ever to reduce its rather large carbon footprint.

In fact, despite the hesitation of politicians, most of the corporate community has gotten on board. Walmart plans to reduce its carbon emissions 18% by 2025 and will help its suppliers as well. Amazon has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040. Boeing, the nation’s largest manufacturer, has pledged to reduce emissions in aviation by 50% by 2050.

Locally, American Electric Power, formerly one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide from coal, has pledged to reduce carbon emissions 70% by 2030. This is a company that at one time emitted more than most other countries. Even companies that have not set ambitious goals on carbon emission reductions, like Kroger, keep careful track of their carbon emissions nonetheless and likely feel pressure to announce their own ambitious targets in the future.

Today, most large companies are plotting a pathway toward a profitable future with less carbon. This means that there will be more demand for gadgets and approaches that improve energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electric cars and trucks. Further, if companies like AEP meet their carbon emission targets, that’s a massive multiplier for the rest of us who don’t have the time or inclination to put up our own solar panels.

In the face of this outpouring of corporate responsibility, why worry about failed U.N. negotiations in Madrid this past month or the missed goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aimed to keep climate change in check? Maybe it’s because we don’t trust ourselves.

As great as it is that so many companies are planning to become carbon neutral, those are just plans, and those are just some companies. Without agreed-upon rules and regulations that put actual limits on our carbon emissions, that have a valid enforcement mechanism and that are enforced evenly across the world, we all know deep down that these voluntary agreements will never work.

This collective unwillingness to regulate our economy to solve climate change is not a new problem. We’ve been making climate treaties for over 30 years and none of them has worked, for predictable reasons: They were voluntary, or they left key partners out. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our inability to solve this problem, though. The economic decision on climate change always has been a difficult one to make. The costs of avoiding it are large, even though future damages may be larger.

Consider this, the preferred U.N. outcome would have us undertake actions to prevent more than 2 degrees Celsius global temperature change. To achieve this we can either eliminate carbon emissions within 10-15 years — a really costly change — or we can wait a while and then start producing bioenergy crops to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This solution would require up to 2 billion hectares of land, an area the size of North America, be devoted to bioenergy crop production. Such a massive change in how we use land across the world would raise food prices and could imperil natural forests, wetlands and prairies.

So our choice is this: We can accept either really high costs to avoid climate change or massive land use change or more damages from climate change, including the loss of some coastal cities and homes, higher food prices, larger expenditures on air conditioning, different rainfall patterns and lost recreational opportunities. Honestly, this doesn’t sound like much of a choice at all.