Jeff Sachs says that in order to make progress on curtailing greenhouse gases, we need to get politicians out of the way and involve "scientists, engineers and ordinary citizens ... in a true discussion about our common future, and especially the tradeoffs, costs and choices":
Enough posturing politics. Time to let the experts lead, by Jeffrey Sachs, Commentary, CiF: We can only marvel at the disarray. Here we are, 17 years after the signing of the UN framework convention on climate change, two years after the decision in Bali to agree a new climate policy, one year after Barack Obama's election, and days out from the Copenhagen conference. Yet a real global strategy to avoid catastrophe remains elusive.
Yes, there is some progress. ... The mayhem, however, is at least as great. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to mount, and will do so for years or decades to come. The Wall Street Journal, America's biggest circulation paper, rails each day against climate science. Backroom deals in the US Congress with industrial lobbies threaten to eviscerate already watered-down proposals for limiting carbon emissions. A vote on the US legislation has been postponed till next spring at the earliest, and a similar bill has just been defeated in Australia.
The truth is that even if we reach a political agreement, we're not yet on track to achieve practical, significant and sustained progress... – we've somehow turned a life-and-death challenge into a scrum. After Copenhagen, which probably will be concluded with a patch-up accord, it will be vital to change paths from the one we've been on essentially since before Kyoto in 1997.
We've debated for years about who should control emissions, by how much, when, and according to binding or non-binding commitments. Yet we can't settle these issues without also getting into the details about the deployment of low-carbon technologies, social behaviors and the quantitative realities of energy systems, transport technologies, food production, water scarcity, and population trends. We will continue to go around in circles until we are much more systematic in bringing scientific and engineering realities to the table. Our negotiations need much greater grounding in our true options and their costs.
These issues are tough and complex. Each nation's plausible choices depend on what technologies will be available and when. ... We will need, in short, a lot more brainstorming than negotiation, at least until the world's plausible options and trade-offs come into view. When can low-carbon power plants truly be brought online? When will electric vehicles be ready for mass sales? Will carbon capture really work and if so, where? Which countries and regions ... have the right kind of geology to store carbon underground, and who is going to monitor it? Dare we advocate a massive revival of the nuclear power industry, in a world fraught with nuclear proliferation? During two years of lead-up to Copenhagen, the official negotiations never gave a place for such questions to be posed, much less answered. ...
We have spent a lot of time debating the merits of tradable permits versus taxation but have failed to understand that operational policies must go far beyond either instrument. The future of nuclear power, for instance, depends not so much on tradable permits as on issues of safety, reliability, and risks of proliferation or terrorism. Similarly emissions trading may eventually spur the use of carbon capture and sequestration, but only after several such plants have been tried on the public expense, to investigate the real engineering and costs of possible technologies, and the real feasibility of safe, long-term storage in geological sites. The scale-up of solar and wind power will depend on land use choices, the future of the power grid, and the ability to store power.
The costs of these approaches can only be judged after more thorough testing and analysis. Thus the side payments that rich countries will have to make to poor ones to adopt such technologies can't yet be determined precisely. When the EU or any country announces their contribution to the poorer countries in Copenhagen, the number will be pulled out of the hat, and probably far too low. It's past time to do ... the real financial homework.
Perhaps it's no surprise we are stuck. Climate change is the most complicated issue the world has faced. Complex – but not hopeless. It's time to put the expertise at the front table, not to supplant public debate and discussion but finally to inform it. Copenhagen should be the end of negotiation by politicians with technical issues kept in the shadows or ignored. Let's get scientists, engineers and ordinary citizens involved in a true discussion about our common future, and especially the tradeoffs, costs and choices. Together we can prove that our world is still capable of reaching long-range agreements when our children's lives and wellbeing hang in the balance.