Are the arguments about global warming getting weirder? Last week Bjorn Lomborg opined in the New York Times, as he has elsewhere, that cutting emissions of greenhouse gases is a waste of time. Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” which argued against the idea that global warming was getting worse, seems now to acknowledge “the long-term benefits that would come from reducing warming,” however. What he takes issue with is the best mechanism for achieving the reduction in warming.
Rather than mandating emissions caps, he says, a better option is “to make low-carbon alternatives like solar and wind energy competitive with old carbon sources.” There are two ways to make low-carbon energy competitive with high-carbon energy: make low-carbon energy cheaper, or make high-carbon energy more expensive. Making high-carbon energy more expensive is precisely the effect that cap-and-trade (and carbon taxes) have.
But Lomborg cites the underwhelming results of the Kyoto Protocol to brand cap-and-trade as a waste of time. And he cites the failure of Kyoto to spur increases in low-carbon energy R&D as another dimension of its failure. (Though in the U.S., at least, clean tech of all sorts was the single biggest category to attract venture capital last year.)
Lomborg’s solution: a global agreement to fund clean energy R&D, which he says will speed the arrival of cost-effective low-carbon energy and do so at a lower cost than emissions caps.
To summarize the building elements of Lomborg’s thesis:
- global warming is real and needs to be mitigated
- clean sources of energy must replace carbon-based energy, as soon as possible
- vast amounts of spending (to the tune of 1/20th of a percent of global GDP) should be dedicated to mitigating it
I don’t see anything here that advocates of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, or government subsidies for clean energy usage or R&D would disagree with. The disagreement is about what mechanism, when facing the realities of politics and the mysteries of macroeconomics, would bring about the desired result most quickly and reliably at the lowest cost.
I wish I knew how to answer that. Lomborg gives me an idea, though: a problem with any of these emissions reduction schemes is getting the big polluters in the developing world on board. Even if that remains difficult, perhaps we can get those countries to contribute to a global R&D fund, as Lomborg suggests, in exchange for access to whatever technology it might bring to life. Whatever works…