The Technology Assessment Approach to Climate Change; We Should Apply the Lessons of the Montreal Protocol: Enlist Industry Expertise and Focus on Manageable Goals for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Parson, Edward A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Technology Assessment Approach to Climate Change; We Should Apply the Lessons of the Montreal Protocol: Enlist Industry Expertise and Focus on Manageable Goals for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions


Parson, Edward A., Issues in Science and Technology


Policy debate on global climate change is deadlocked. Why? One major reason is that assessment of options for reducing greenhouse gases has been strikingly ineffective. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which produces respected and successful assessments of atmospheric science, has applied the same approach to the fundamentally different problem of assessing technological and managerial options to reduce emissions. The predictable result has been options assessments that are broad, vague, and disconnected from practical problems. One reason is that IPCC has, crucially, failed to draw on privatesector expertise. Yet such expertise could inform policy and promote emission reductions directly, as one prominent recent success demonstrates. That notable success is the assessment of technological options to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals under the Montreal Protocol. An assessment process similar to that used for ozone-depleting chemicals can be applied to problems of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and may represent the best nearterm opportunity to ease the present policy deadlock.

The sharpest debate over climate change has concerned how to respond to uncertainties in climate science, such as the significance of recent climate trends, their attribution to human influences, and climate model projections of future changes and their impacts. But these are not the only uncertainties that matter. Equally important are uncertainties over future greenhouse gas emissions and their control. How fast will emissions grow if unchecked? How much can they be reduced, by what means, at what cost? The deadlock persists, and climate science uncertainties matter, because of widespread concern that emission cuts will generate serious economic and social costs. If it became clear that cutting emissions was cheap and easy, the present deadlock would yield readily to agreement on large precautionary cuts, despite uncertainties in climate projections.

But future emissions and the ease with which they can be reduced are much more uncertain than the present debate would suggest. Under plausible assumptions about socioeconomic and technological change, global emissions in 2100 could range from half to 10 times present levels. This uncertainty stems from imperfectly understood demographic, behavioral, and economic processes. Technological change is an important component of the equation, too. Even leaving aside the possibility of fundamental technological advances, there are many incremental innovations that can reduce future emissions substantially. These include measures to increase the efficiency of energy use, reduce the carbon content of primary energy, decouple atmospheric emissions from fossil energy use, and target non-CO2 greenhouse gases from industrial and agricultural activities. Expert assessments of such options can reduce uncertainty about the cost of limiting emissions and provide useful input to policy decisions. Yet several assessments of gre enhouse gas reduction options have achieved little, either in reducing uncertainties or in providing useful policy advice.

This failure reflects no special discredit on the IPCC. Many attempts to assess options for managing other environmental issues have similarly failed because of a basic structural problem that all such attempts face. Successful assessment requires the energetic and honest efforts of first-rank experts from the industries that are potential targets of regulatory controls. But these people's time and attention are among their companies' most valuable competitive assets. Releasing them to help advise public policy is costly under any conditions. Releasing them to help formulate regulatory restrictions on their own companies is even less attractive. No company or industry has an interest in helping regulators to impose burdens on them.

The record attests to the force of this obstacle: Options assessments are attempted infrequently, and succeed even less frequently at engaging industry expertise. …

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The Technology Assessment Approach to Climate Change; We Should Apply the Lessons of the Montreal Protocol: Enlist Industry Expertise and Focus on Manageable Goals for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
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