11/29/2013 - 10:22

Gas guzzlers and wood fires

In Round Three, N.H. Ravindranath wrote that "all nations, whether developed or developing, must explore various avenues for climate mitigation, whether large-scale or small-scale." This is not what the international community has agreed to. The Kyoto Protocol treats developed and developing countries differently, requiring the former to reduce emissions but providing the latter space for continued development. This distinction acknowledges that climate change results from carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and that developing countries have had no significant role in causing these accumulations. Therefore, they are treated differently from the countries whose current prosperity was built on carbon emissions that are now harming the whole planet.

Climate negotiations are difficult—to a large extent because some countries, even as they continue driving their sport utility vehicles and running their air conditioners, attempt to deny their historic responsibilities. If they expect reductions in carbon emissions from poor nations, they expect poor people to abandon any notion of electrifying their houses. As it is, many of the poor barely emit enough carbon to cook their food.

So Ravindranath errs when he insists that the poor must be included in climate mitigation efforts. Not only would the approach he suggests be ineffective—the poor emit so little carbon to begin with—but it would mislead the public into thinking that the poor, with their inefficient wood fires, bear some blame for the climate problem.

Meanwhile, Jose R. Moreira argues—convincingly—that production of biofuels in Brazil can be environmentally and economically sound. Brazil enjoys ample sunlight and land availability, along with low population density. These conditions are not found in many places. Indeed, Moreira notes that "only the United States and Brazil are making really significant efforts in biofuels for transportation"—and one might add that Brazil would be alone on the list were it not for massive biofuels subsidies in the United States.

But where Moreira goes wrong is in devoting so much attention to the supply side of biofuels for transportation without questioning current patterns of liquid-fuel consumption. In climate terms, a liter of fuel has the same impact whether it is used to power a developing-world tractor or a developed-world sport utility vehicle. In development terms, the two are not the same at all. But beyond that, biofuels accomplish nothing for the climate if they ultimately promote consumption patterns that are incompatible with the zero-carbon economy that must be established in the not-too-distant future.

Finally, in response to Moreira's dismissal of organic agriculture's potential in climate mitigation, which he justifies on the basis of organic agriculture's lower productivity, I would point out that this productivity disadvantage is more than compensated for by factors that Moreira doesn't address. For example, organic agriculture prevents carbon emissions because it doesn't depend on synthetic fertilizers. It also sequesters carbon in the ground and enriches soils, making them more climate-adaptable.