In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change [pdf]—the third in a series of reports on global warming issued in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—scientists outline strategies that could reduce global warming over the next few decades at increased costs of $20-$100 for each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Despite those anticipated costs, however, the consensus of scientists who worked on the report is that nations have no choice but to take immediate action.
“If we continue doing what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble,” said Ogunlade Davidson, co-chair of the working group that produced the report.
Costs and Benefits of Slowing Global Warming
Rather than recommend a specific course of action, the report simply explains the benefits various costs would produce. The most ambitious plan, which would stabilize the level of greenhouse gases by 2030 at a cost of about $100 more for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted, could increase gasoline prices by up to $1 per gallon over a period of several years and also add to the cost of electricity and other basics. Overall, the plan would be expected to slow global economic activity by less than 3 percent between now and 2030—about one-tenth of a percent annually.
At that rate, the world economy would still experience robust growth, but at a slightly slower rate than current projected. And the impact of those costs would be offset to a significant degree by the benefits of a global economy less dependent on carbon-based fuels and technologies, a cleaner environment, and more secure energy sources. In some cases, these changes also would result in lower costs for energy efficient cars, appliances and houses, the report said.
The High Cost of Inaction or Failure
Failing to act now, or taking a less ambitious course, might lead to higher costs in the long run, according to the report. Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—produced by everything from automobiles, factories and coal-fired power plants to farming, forest fires and decomposing waste—have risen 70 percent since 1970, according to an IPCC report released in February 2007.
If nations do not start to control their emissions more effectively, the level of greenhouse gases is projected to increase another 25 to 90 percent by 2030—a level that would lead to the disappearance of many species, widespread disease, and mass migrations of environmental refugees displaced by floods, droughts and rising sea levels.
How We Can Solve the Problem of Global Warming
To stop the rise in greenhouse gases and global temperatures, the report said nations will need to expand existing policies that can help lower emissions, such as fuel or carbon taxes, while increasing research for new energy options and exploring technological advances that could lead to increased use of solar, wind and nuclear power.
“Government funding in real absolute terms for most energy research programs has been flat or declining for nearly two decades, and is now about half of the 1980 level,” the report said. For example, the Washington Post reported that since 1990 when the United States first called for voluntary rather than mandatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, U.S. emissions have increased 28 percent while federal funding for climate change research has declined significantly.
But enlightened policies and new technologies won’t be enough to curb global warming. People worldwide, especially those in industrial countries, will also need to make significant lifestyle changes to help reduce the demand for fossil fuels.
“Human society as a whole has to look for changes in consumption patterns,” said IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri at a press conference announcing the report and the panel’s findings.
Another Point of View
Not everyone agreed with the affordability of reducing global warming as outlined in the IPCC report. The U.S. government, while approving the report officially, issued a statement rejecting its more aggressive options. James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the plan to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 “would of course cause global recession, so that is something that we probably want to avoid.” China officials also objected to the costs outlined in the report. Together, China and the U.S. account for about 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Even some of those who support the report were taken aback by how much would have to be done so quickly to make the changes needed to slow global warming.
“It's hard to imagine,” said Jae Edmonds, an economist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “So many things have to happen so fast, and they are so big.”
A New Energy Revolution Needed to Reduce Global Warming
Yet, many experts said it would be hard to argue against the necessary investments and other actions, because the cost of doing nothing or not enough were simply too great.
Dr. William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University and a co-author of the report, offered perhaps the most optimistic view by reminding reporters that human ingenuity has overcome big challenges before.
“Here in the early years of the 21st century, we’re looking for an energy revolution that’s as comprehensive as the one that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when we went from gaslight and horse-drawn carriages to light bulbs and automobiles,” Moomaw said. “In 1905, only 3 percent of [U.S.] homes had electricity. Right now, 3 percent is about the same range as the amount of renewable energy we have today. None of us can predict the future any more than we could in 1905, but that suggests to me it may not be impossible to make that kind of revolution again.”