"Ill show you my goal if you show me yours"
- Sixteen of the nation’s top environmental leaders tell Congress we must reduce
‘s “global warming emissions” by 15-20% below current levels by 2020. America
Climate Action Partnership — a coalition of environmental groups and corporations — proposes that greenhouse gas emissions reach 90-100% in 10 years, compared to what they are when a cap and trade bill is enacted. U.S.
- Six Western Governors sign the Western Climate Initiative, calling for greenhouse gas reductions of 15% below 2005 by 2020.
- The European Union sets its targets at 20% below 1990 emissions by 2020. But it’s willing to go to 30% if others do.
- Meeting in
a month ago, 1,000 delegates from 158 countries agree that industrialized nations should cut their greenhouse gas emissions 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Vienna
As I track the many calls for cuts in emissions — and the list of groups setting targets seems to grow every week — I suspect that we’re not only confusing the public, but also one another. We have a proliferation of percentages and a proliferation of base years against which these percentages are calculated: 1990, 2005, today, whenever Congress gets around to passing a law. The World Resources Institute, among others, deserves thanks for helping us make apples-to-apples comparisons of GHG reduction targets contained in the various bills in Congress.
But should our climate metrics be so confusing that we need think tanks to sort them out?
We don’t agree on what we’re trying to cut. Some of us talk about reducing carbon emissions, others about reducing carbon dioxide emissions and others about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, all different. Some talk about carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions, a useful but fictitious unit of measure based on all six greenhouse gases behaving like CO2.
Then there’s carbon intensity, another way of saying carbon emissions per dollar of Gross Domestic Product. This unit is the favorite of the current Administration because of its unique ability to make it appear that emissions are going down when they are actually going up. There’s even energy intensity, for those who really don’t care about the climate.
Creative math can provide camouflage for Members of Congress, too. A bill proposing that emissions be cut 30% below 2005 levels is the same as a bill cutting emissions 20% below 1990 levels. Simply by changing the baseline, a Member can look as though he or she is more ambitious than the European Union or the IPCC or some other member, when he or she is not.
We hear the threshold of dangerous climate change expressed in degrees Celsius and parts per million, and the parts per million are different depending on which gases we’re discussing. If we are able to sort through all of these units of measure, we then have to ask whether we’re talking about gross emissions or net emissions — i.e., the amount of greenhouse gases finding their way to the atmosphere after some of what we’ve emitted has been captured by the ocean, land and forests.
It probably is too much to expect that all, or most, or even many of the good groups working on the climate problem will agree to the same goal. But it should not be too much to ask that we agree on the same language.
The marketplace can use a common metric, too. The many on-line carbon footprint calculators have the right idea in principle. So do a few manufacturers of consumer products, who are beginning to introduce climate impact labels on their goods.
We should make it easy for consumers to know the impact of their purchases and behaviors.
So far, however, carbon calculations are the Wild West of metrics, with no universal standard for how we compute the tons of carbon it took to produce a sneaker or a pair of jeans. We could do many good things with a metric we all could trust. We could put carbon-impact numbers on new car stickers (emissions per mile), on appliance efficiency and Energy Star labels (emissions per kilowatt), on utility bills (emissions compared to last month and a year ago, based on the utility’s generation portfolio and after deducting green power purchases, etc.).
In regard to national goals, it seems clear to me that our common unit of measure should count all greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere — in other words, net tons of CO2 equivalent. I’d vote for our common base year to be 1990, since that seems to be the international standard.
On consumer products, it may be time for a summit of the nation’s best bean counters. While they’re at it, perhaps they can figure out a national standard for carbon offset programs, too.
The good news is that so many of us are talking about climate action and goals. At the moment, however, it’s like trying to have an intelligent conversation at the United Nations, without a translator.