Climate Change Goals: Where to Begin?

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Science  04 Jan 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5859, pp. 33
DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5859.33a

Colin Challen's editorial “Playing climate change poker” (20 July 2007, p. 295) has a very apt title. As a British parliamentarian who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, he obviously feels very good about the impressive goals set in the recent UK Draft Climate Change Bill. But he also has the equivalent of an ace in the hole which, like any good poker player, he carefully does not show.

This ace is the use of a 1990 baseline year for calculation of the targeted 60% reduction in British CO2 production. The year 1990 was during the period when the UK was switching away from heavy reliance on coal. This switch occurred because of the increasing production of North Sea oil and because of Prime Minister Thatcher's aversion to the then-powerful and militant coal miner's union.

The UK is not alone in trying to take advantage of the vagaries of history by using 1990 as a baseline year. Germany's recent proposal for a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, presented by Prime Minister Merkel at the G8 meeting in early June, takes advantage of the 1989 German reunification that added highly inefficient eastern German industry to their 1990 baseline.

Rather than using a baseline of 17 years ago, the all-important goal-setting process to mitigate global climate effects should start with a clear understanding of where we are now and where we want to be in the future. Global climate change is too serious to be treated as a game. It is time to turn over every player's hole cards.


Bernard Goldstein has hit upon a very important point. It is where we want to be, not where we've been, that matters. We need to achieve a safe and sustainable concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and we should “backcast” all our calculations from that overriding objective and not obsess about 1990 as if that year had some magical quality.

Taking a baseline year does have one important quality: It provides an absolute that prevents the relativism of those politicians, notably in the administrations of the United States and China, of merely seeking to reduce the carbon intensity per unit of GDP. That is a recipe for emissions growth.

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