Mankind has the technology to slow global warming – and the shift can occur without breaking the bank. But the timetable is short and the political resistance to "low-carbon" economics is high.
That's the conclusion emerging as experts digest Friday's release of a report from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report, which focuses on the costs of various scenarios to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, the most aggressive of which would aim to limit warming to a range of 2 to 2.8 degrees C (3.6 to 5 degrees F.) by the end of the century. To accomplish that, the world's nations would have to institute sweeping changes that would slash emissions by as much as 85 percent by 2050. For the US, this eventually could boost gasoline prices by up to $1 a gallon, according to some estimates.
"In terms of real life ... you can't even imagine how we could get from here to there," says Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va.
In the US, many factories, power plants, and other big-ticket, energy-guzzling projects already are being built or soon will be and their impacts will be felt for decades, she points out. Abroad, major developing countries, such as China and India, are expected to continue their rapid growth and spiraling emissions.
In virtually every economic sector the report analyzes, efforts to adopt more atmosphere-friendly policies face serious constraints. Not the least is "resistance by vested interests," the report says.
The final wording in the IPCC's summary – a 38-page condensation of a larger tome running more than 1,000 pages – resulted from a week of sometimes torturous talk in Bangkok, Thailand, among delegations from 105 countries.
On one point, there's wide agreement: The technology exists to cut greenhouse-gas emissions significantly. Increased efficiency, wider use of renewable energy, changes in land use and farming practices, and wider use of nuclear energy, among other approaches, could substantially cut the risk of incurring the worst effects of global warming outlined in the IPCC's two previous volumes, released earlier this year.
The approaches the group lays out hold the potential for emissions cuts in a range of economic sectors – energy production, building, transportation, agriculture, and others – that can substantially offset growth in emissions "and even bring emissions below current levels," says Bert Metz, a senior researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and one of the co-chairs for the group producing Friday's report. "That is a significant potential," especially when compared with the past 35 years when greenhouse-gas emissions – mostly carbon dioxide – have risen some 70 percent.
To be sure, the efforts come at a cost to economic growth. The biggest gains happen when nations begin to impose taxes or regulations that boost the price of carbon-dioxide emissions to $100 a ton, according to the report's authors. By some estimates, that translates into US gasoline prices from 25 cents to $1 a gallon higher than today's.
But in the context of global economic activity, the cost is modest, according to the report. It's most aggressive emissions-reduction scenario would slow still-respectable growth rates by an average of 0.12 percent a year between now and 2030 – or by roughly 3 percent over the entire period.
From the administration's perspective, the results validate President Bush's reliance on new technologies to achieving his goal of reducing the country's carbon "intensity." The White House's goal: cut 18 percent per unit of gross domestic product by 2012.
The report "really highlights the importance of deploying a portfolio of clean-energy technologies globally," said Harlan Watson, who headed the US delegation to last week's negotiations in Bangkok. "It's totally consistent with President Bush's approach to addressing climate change." But others add the administration can find little solace in other respects of the report. It places little value on carbon intensity as a benchmark for progress, since even a more efficient economy can still pump more CO2 into the atmosphere.
"You can use an intensity number as long as your intensity decrease is bigger than your economic growth, because that would mean net reductions in emissions," says Jonathan Pershing, an economist with the World Resources Institute in Washington.
Indeed, carbon intensity in the industrial world has been falling for some time, Dr. Metz adds, because of "business as usual" investments in energy efficiency. But CO2 emissions have still grown, in addition to what many see as the worrisome rise in emissions from developing countries, particularly China and India.
While voluntary approaches can lead to measurable emissions reductions, they hold little hope for emissions reductions beyond "business as usual," the report says.
Thus, the report is expected to add impetus to efforts in the US Congress to take more aggressive action against global warming. Yet the IPCC's smorgasbord of solutions includes provisions that have the potential to pit industries – and even environmental groups – against each other. Already, several environmental groups have criticized the report's inclusion of nuclear energy as a helpful technology.
Biofuels present another flash point among environmental groups. Several groups see strong climate and energy-security reasons for shifting from petroleum-based transportation fuels to ethanol or biodiesel. But a statement from one coalition of environmentalists, largely based in Europe, roundly condemns the IPCC's biofuels option as "a climate disaster in the making."