Controls, Cash Aid In Slashing Greenhouse Gases

The economic stimulus package moving through Congress has billions of dollars aimed at dealing with climate change. The legislation has a huge pile of money to make homes and buildings more energy efficient. And there's more money to subsidize renewable energy. But real forward motion on climate change will cost trillions, not billions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The economic stimulus package moving through Congress includes billions of dollars aimed for dealing with climate change. The legislation has a huge pile of money to make homes and buildings more energy efficient. And there's more money to subsidize renewable energy. But real progress on dealing with climate change is estimated to cost trillions, not billions. And a sobering analysis shows even the world's most ambitious plans don't go far enough. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Far above and beyond the stimulus package, President Obama has set a goal of slashing our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent between now and the middle of the century. What that could cost is anybody's guess. But if you want to know what that means in terms of the climate, ask Robert Corell. He's a scientist at the non-profit Heinz Center in Washington, D.C. That's part of a group of academics, corporations, non-profits and others who have banded together as the Climate Action Initiative. One item in their bag of tricks is a computer program that simulates the climate on a laptop.

ROBERT CORELL: And it produces results in about a second.

HARRIS: Want to know how fast the world will heat up and how fast sea levels will rise under any given emissions control scenario? Just ask the computer.

CORELL: This runs in the PC world, and I'm a Mac guy, so I'm having - there we are. All right.

HARRIS: While you need a supercomputer to give you a full-blown simulation of the climate, this nimble program developed at M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania is designed to give the CliffsNotes version with good accuracy. And Corell can sit down with environment ministers or even heads of state to show them a glimpse of the future to guide their decisions.

So, for example, Corell showed us what would happen if the 15 nations in the world with the most emissions were able to meet their huge aspirational goals for the year 2050. Those goals range from an 80 percent reduction on the part of the United States and Europe to slower emissions growth rates for China. A few clicks later, here's the answer.

CORELL: It gets you a planet that's probably four to six degrees warmer than it is now. And so...

HARRIS: Centigrade or Fahrenheit?

CORELL: That's Centigrade.

HARRIS: So double that for Fahrenheit?

CORELL: I'm roughly doubling that for...

HARRIS: So when you talk about a goal of 80 percent reduction by 2050, I think people generally feel pretty good about that. They feel it's highly ambitious, but if we can accomplish that I think people assume that problem solved. You're saying not so.

CORELL: Absolutely not so.

HARRIS: So then we turned the question around to ask what would solve the problem. Many scientists say that the amount of carbon dioxide in the air should be no more than 400 parts per million. That's already a big increase over pre-industrial levels and portends several degrees of temperature rise, but it's much less likely to have catastrophic consequences.

So how do you get there?

CORELL: There are probably many, many ways to do it.

HARRIS: Corell has one example. The eight leading industrialized countries would need to take on much more ambitious plans than they have today, and the five rapidly industrialized nations - including China and India - would have to join in.

CORELL: Here's what you find. It takes about a 5 percent reduction per year by the developed and the other five countries, China and India, and a reduction or maybe even just stabilization of the rest of the world. Five percent per year is huge.

HARRIS: As just one point of comparison, California has one of the most ambitious greenhouse gas control plans in the nation, and emissions there are still going up, not down. Corell says it would require global investments of tens of trillions of dollars in the coming decades. And we don't just need to spend the money ourselves. We need to convince China and India to follow suit. If this sounds more than daunting, well, that's the point.

CORELL: This is sort of a wake-up call mechanism. Oh, it's tougher than I thought, and I probably have to think about it differently.

HARRIS: One person pushing for an intellectual paradigm shift is Dan Sarewitz from Arizona State University. It's his view that simply forcing the world to stop using cheap and abundant fossil fuels could never happen because it would completely destabilize the global economy. The problem may sound hopeless, but...

DAN SAREWITZ: That does not lead automatically into an abyss of depression or resignation that we can't do anything about it. It leads me to turn to what we understand about how to stimulate successful innovation.

HARRIS: Sarewitz argues that our only hope is to invent our way out of this problem. That's a story for tomorrow. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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