A quick and sure way to slow global warming is to arrange a really deep depression like the one that occurred in eastern Europe after the breakup of the Soviet empire. As the bottom left chart shows, such disintegration resulted in a steep decline in carbon dioxide emissions in that region. This episode illustrates that prosperity is a driving force behind the growing level of greenhouse gases. As incomes rise, people increasingly spend their money on autos, air-conditioning and other energy-intensive technologies, thus contributing to global warming. Rising population is another prime contributor. Had population not changed since 1950, carbon emissions would now be 40 percent of their current level.
Of course, the world community will not be reducing the population or striving to cap prosperity. Instead it has focused on getting international agreements to lower emissions. The latest effort in this direction, the Kyoto Protocol, would set legally binding national targets for emission reductions. The Kyoto process, however, is in trouble, because not all countries (notably, the U.S.) will ratify it. Other efforts--such as the U.S. movement to impose higher mileage standards on sport-utility vehicles and the European Union plan to levy a tax on energy--have floundered.
This article was originally published with the title Greenhouse Follies.