Cutting Carbon Emissions in Half

When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997, the proposed five percent reductions in carbon emissions from 1990 levels in industrial countries by 2012 seemed like an ambitious goal. Now it is seen as out of date. Even before the treaty has entered into force, many of the countries committed to carrying it out have discovered that they can do even better.

Wei Lin

National and local governments, corporations and environmental groups are coming up with ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions. Prominent among these is a plan developed by the British government to reduce carbon emissions 60 percent by 2050, the amount that scientists deem necessary to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. Building on this, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sweden’s Prime Minister Gñran Persson are jointly urging the European Union to adopt the 60 percent goal.

A plan developed for Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Climate Action Network would halve carbon emissions by 2030 and would do it only with investments in energy efficiency that are profitable. And in April 2003, the World Wildlife Fund released a peer-reviewed analysis that proposed reducing carbon emissions from U.S. electric power generation 60 percent by 2020. If implemented, it would result in national savings averaging $20 billion a year from now until 2020.

In Canada’s most populous province, an environmental group—the Ontario Clear Air Alliance—has devised a plan to phase out the province’s coal-fired power plants, the first one in 2005 and the last one by 2015. The plan is supported by all three major political parties. Jack Gibbons of the Alliance says, "Coal is a 19th century fuel with no place in 21st century Ontario."

Germany is now talking about a 40 percent emissions reduction by 2020. And this is a country that is already far more energy-efficient than the U.S. Some countries in Europe have essentially the same living standard as the U.S. yet use scarcely half as much energy per person. But even the countries that use energy most efficiently are not close to realizing the full potential for doing so. The key to cutting carbon emissions, as many countries are beginning to realize, lies in harnessing renewable technologies, including wind, solar and hydrogen-based fuel cells.

Although stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels is a staggering challenge, it is entirely doable. Detailed studies by governments and environmental groups are beginning to reveal the potential for reducing carbon emissions while saving money in the process. With advances in wind turbine design and the evolution of the fuel cell, we now have the basic technologies needed to shift quickly from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy. Cutting world carbon emissions in half by 2015 is entirely within range. Ambitious though this might seem, it is commensurate with the threat that climate change poses.

LESTER BROWN is president of Earth Policy Institute. This article is excerpted with permission from his new book Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (W.W. Norton).