02 November 2010

No way...

No way to check emissions puts climate deal in danger reads the header of a recent article by Fred Pearce in 'New Scientist'. One example:
China does not record CO2 emissions from its small coal-burning factories and long-standing fires in mines which may result in under-reporting by as much as 20 per cent. The uncertainties for other greenhouse gases are even greater.... 'New Scientist', 9 October (page 12)
Another article, Dead Oceans, in the same issue (page 37) talks about the possible consequences of oxygen-deprived dead zones in the oceans; a result of warmer waters and the smaller quantity of dissolved oxygen they can contain. These regions:
...could come to host bacteria that emit nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Working out the likely extent of such feedback processes...will be a major preoccupation for scientists in the coming years.
We might not have those years. Our policymaking systems are incapable of dealing with a problem like climate change. Focussing as they do on processes and institutions they seek, at their best, to identify the causes of problems before they set up institutions supposed to solve them. Of course, these institutions develop their own agenda, and the people working for them aren't paid in ways that reward successful solutions but, given sufficient funding and sufficiently robust knowledge of the relationships between cause and effect, and plenty of time, this mechanism has been known to work.

Sadly, though, the deficiencies of such an approach become serious flaws with potentially disastrous challenges like climate change. The relationships, as the two snippets quoted above suggest, are just too uncertain and complex. Our knowledge of them, though expanding rapidly, is too sparse to generate the buy-in required to deliver effective solutions. We need diverse solutions that can adapt to changing circumstances and our expanding knowledge. And we need to target the outcome we want to achieve, rather than waste years trying (and, most likely, failing) to identify the important scientific and economic relationships before we take effective action.

That's where Climate Stability Bonds could help. They'd be issued by some global organisation, and be backed by contributions from national governments. They would define some climate target, probably in terms of a combination of physical, biological and financial indicators. The bonds would reward the maintenance of a climate whose index fell within defined boundaries. It would be up to investors in the bonds to decide how best to deploy resources to achieve our goal. They would have incentives to do so as cost-effectively as possible. It would be up to them to keep abreast of all the important science. They would adapt their approaches as our knowledge expands. Every aspect of this behaviour would be far, far better than the current approach, which, to put it mildly, is not working.

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