Climate change debate: push emissions goals or technology?
Should the world put less focus on emissions caps and more on spurring clean technologies?
A long-simmering debate has come to a boil among climate policy specialists over the most effective way to ensure humanity has the necessary hardware it needs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to virtually zero over the course of this century.Skip to next paragraph
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At issue is whether the current tack on climate policy, which emphasizes the establishment of binding emissions goals, should take a back seat to an all-out push to develop the technology needed to accomplish that feat.
Politicians are more likely to back tight emissions targets if the tools to meet them are readily at hand, proponents of a technology-first approach argue.
"This is one of the two or three central debates in the climate issue," says Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a top US Energy Department official during President Clinton's second term.
The trigger for the flare-up is a critique issued Thursday that attempts to show that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has significantly understated the technology challenge the world faces on climate change. It does so, the argument goes, by overestimating the pace at which less carbon-intense and more energy-efficient technologies take root naturally as economies evolve.
Given the twin demands of controlling climate change and ensuring the world's future energy needs are met, "the first question to ask is not 'how do we reduce emissions?' " says Roger Pielke Jr., a science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the author of the critique. Instead, he says, the question should be: "In a world that needs vast amounts of more energy, how can we provide that energy in ways that do not lead to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere?"
Technologies that are already at hand or likely to go commercial over the next decade may not be climate friendly enough to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations so that global warming is held to about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by century's end. At this stage, he says, people should focus more on policies that directly address what many analysts see as a yawning technology gap, rather than on regulatory approaches that deal with the gap less directly.
The critique by Dr. Pielke and colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and McGill University in Montreal, has touched off a small firestorm among the scientific community – in no small part because it appeared in the pages of Nature, one of the most high-profile science journals on the planet.
Some of the reaction to the critique focuses on the nuts and bolts of the argument, which implies that when the IPCC lays out emissions projections, it might do better to assume that technologies don't get much better over time. That would give a clearer sense of the challenge ahead than assuming – as they argue the IPCC does now – that anywhere from half to virtually all of the technology gap could close in the course of ordinary economic evolution.