Monday, May 7, 2007

Kyoto by way of Montreal

Last night, I was talking with a friend about market forces and market failures of carbon emissions. Specifically, we agreed that there is no way that you can price the cost of carbon emissions sufficiently enough to curb the problem on a global scale. Beyond this market failure, we'll most certainly need an enlightened set of government leaders across the globe to initiate hard decisions to change our trajectory. No easy task.

This morning it got me thinking... what does government do well? When does government dictate a policy based on what is right, and then solve the market/economics/pricing of that decision later, especially on an international scale. Well, warfare seems to be one. But what about the environment? And then I found my first answer. CFC emissions. Remember those nasty, ozone-depleting freons that lofted up into the air, turined into chlorine gas, and then wreaked havoc on O3, especially over the polar caps?

The leaders of the world did manage to agree, and drive through policy, substantial change and mitigate the CFC problem. Twenty years after the signing of the Montreal Protocol, CFC emissions are below 20% what they were in 1980, and though it's a slow path, scientists are optimistic that the hole will be completely gone in 50 years.

What was magic in Montreal and how can it help get us to "Kyoto" (a successful, international government campaign to reduce carbon). One quick search on Google and I found this writeup from MIT on Lessons Learned From the Montreal Protocol for Global Warming.

It's a decent read, though personally, I would like to have seen a little more concrete details on how the Protocol was able to push through policy in light of contested scientific data, as well as, which came first, the threat of CFC bans from government, or Dupont's market englightenment that a chemical replacement strategy could be profitable.

In fact, it doesn't matter which came first, because you get a sense that Dupont had sufficient market share and technical know how to make a profit ON the banning of CFCs. I'd say the opposites are true on global warming. No one entity has any controlling share of carbon emissions, and worse, the biggest polluters on the planet (the citzenry of the planet using billions of individual cars, stoves, tree-cutters, etc. ) have zero ways to make profitable moves someplace else, and real, direct costs to doing anything but burning easy and cheap fossil fuels.

The article closes with it's most relevant point, and yet, did little to draw out how the Montreal Protocol tied the science to the policy as quickly and effectively as they did.

  • The effectiveness of any strategy on global warming will depend on how well it creates new markets. That much was learned from the Montreal Protocol. But perhaps the greatest lesson is also one of the simplest: when science shows us a looming environmental disaster, we need to act quickly and decisively, regardless of the economic or technical uncertainties.

What we need is an "ozone hole" picture for global warming, a one image graphic that can speak to the impending danger, as well as the comprehensive impact of global warming. Most of us have seen that Al Gore image of rising temperatures and peak years of hot weather. But as a chart, it's not as emotional as a picture, and there are "outlying" years that also create doubt and angles for obstructionists. (such as "why didn't it get warm in the 1950s when carbon emissions took off, etc. etc.). I'm on the hunt, stay tuned...