NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Don't Cut Carbon, Just Adapt to Climate Change

September 4, 2014

The Obama administration has been focused on mitigating carbon emissions, writes Edward Lazear of the Hoover Institution, rather than adapting to climate change (such as planting crops that can withstand high heat). The mitigation approach is not cost-effective, and it will have no impact on the world's warming.

Lazear explains that the entire world emitted 31 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2012, led by China (responsible for 25 percent of the emissions) and the United States (responsible for one-sixth of the emissions). China's carbon emissions have increased each year, a trend that puts the country on track to emit 99 gigatons of carbon by 2014 -- three times the amount the entire world emits today.

But according to Lazear, the 99-gigaton estimate is unrealistic, because countries increase their energy efficiency as they develop. Even so, with no emissions growth, by 2041 China would emit the same amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the entire globe today.

Climatologists have called for limiting the world's total carbon dioxide emissions to 30 to 50 gigatons in 2030. Is it possible? Lazear explains how difficult it is to make significant carbon cuts:

  • The push to use locally-grown produce (thereby cutting transportation emissions) will do little to curb overall carbon emissions, as transport to retailers constitutes less than 5 percent of the energy in produce's life cycle. Nearly all of the carbon emitted takes place during production.
  • Using public transportation, hybrid vehicles or biking is similarly unhelpful. Even if the United States eliminated all carbon emissions from transport for four years, the world's carbon dioxide emissions would still increase.
  • Switching from coal to natural gas would also not have a large enough impact on the world's carbon dioxide levels.
  • High carbon taxes might deter emissions, but they would wreak havoc on the economy.

Instead of trying to mitigate emissions, Lazear encourages countries to adapt to potentially higher temperatures, by planting drought-resistant crops or building structures to combat flooding. The NCPA recently published an analysis by Research Associate Tanner Davis on this very issue. According to Davis, the uncertainty in climate science necessitates the use of adaptation techniques rather than mitigation.

Source: Edward P. Lazear, "The Climate Change Agenda Needs to Adapt to Reality," Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2014.


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