Sun, Aug 23, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Costs and benefits matter in the climate debate

Dealing with climate change involves recognizing what is practical instead of what is ideal

By Bjorn Lomborg

Cutting methane is cheaper than cutting carbon. And because methane is a much shorter-lived gas than carbon dioxide, we can prevent some of the worst of short-term warming through its mitigation. Agricultural production accounts for half of anthropogenic methane, but wastewater systems, landfills and coal mining also create the gas. Professor Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research argues that spending US$14 billion to US$30 billion to reduce methane would create benefits — from the reduction in warming — between 1.4 and three times higher.

We could also place a bigger focus on reducing black carbon, considered responsible for as much as 40 percent of current net warming and one-third of Arctic melting. Black carbon is essentially the soot produced by diesel emissions and — in developing countries — the burning of organic matter to cook food and stay warm. It can be eliminated with cleaner fuels and new cooking technologies.

Doing so would yield other benefits as well. Sooty pollution from indoor fires claims several million lives each year, so reducing black carbon would be a lifesaver. A team of economists led by David Montgomery estimates that spending US$359 million could realistically slash 19 percent of black carbon emissions. This would have a significant cooling impact on the planet, and would save 200,000 lives from pollution. The net annual benefits would run into several billion US dollars, which equates to US$3.60 in avoided climate damage for each dollar spent.

Costs and benefits matter. The best solution to climate change achieves the most good for the lowest cost. With this as our starting point, it is clear that a narrow focus on short-term carbon emission cuts is flawed. The most pertinent question of all is: Why don’t we choose a solution to global warming that will actually work?

Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School.

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