Kyoto accord an economic opportunity

As of Feb. 16, the Kyoto protocol is in effect. Kyoto is the starting point for a long-term strategy to offset global warming.

Of the world’s industrialized countries, only the U.S. and Australia refused to sign, citing excessive economic burdens and the failure to include China and India in the original limits. The U.S. contributes approximately one-fifth of the world’s CO2 while China and India combined contribute nearly one sixth. Although we are not signators to the treaty, American industries with international operations will face the need to meet expectations set by countries that are.

Climate change has been an environmental issue for 40 years with thousands of scientists debating and refining the issue. The dominant scientific view is that evidence regarding global warming is serious enough to require changes. What remains to be sorted out is how to arrive at appropriate emission levels.

Simple energy efficiency could result in savings of 30 to 75 percent. A market shortcoming with efficiency is that it is sold only once, and the savings accrue for the lifetime of the building. It benefits the purchaser of efficiency, not the energy seller. Understandably, sellers aren’t too pleased with this prospect.

A substantial portion of efficiency changes come from behavioral changes. Higher prices could send a signal to pay attention. But morally and ethically, we would hope that people care enough about tomorrow and the future that they will assume personal responsibility. Unfortunately, it appears that far too few Americans are willing to do such simple things as turning off lights, driving less and walking more.

Even with efficiency, an energy supply is needed. Then the debate turns to the best ways of meeting that supply. Some favor increased reliance on nuclear energy. Others prefer increased use of coal and sequestering carbon.

Others want more wind farms. Still others argue for reduced urban sprawl, concentrating urban populations or much smaller human populations. Some subscribe to biofuels stressing more exotic crops such as industrial hemp. Building integrated photovoltaics has minimal impacts. We are in the initial stages of an ongoing political debate regarding the best combination of behavioral and technological changes to reduce CO2 levels by as much as 60 percent by 2050.

The global scientific community has made the case that dealing with climate change is essential and urgent. As a culture, we are steeped in the attractive promise of technological fixes. We’re attracted to it as a fish to a shiny lure. While we tend to prefer technological solutions, both behavioral and technological changes are needed.

Efficiency should not remain an under-utilized approach. It’s the easiest and least expensive alternative. A new geothermally-heated greenhouse with straw bale insulation near Milwaukee is growing greens despite the cold weather. A 1930s apartment block in Germany was refurbished and cut emissions by 80 percent. It’s wise to have an energy-efficient home and a fuel efficient auto.

The Kyoto protocol is an economic opportunity that avoids a potential global catastrophe.

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