However compelling the arguments for holding global warming below 2 degrees, here's the problem: Doing so is plainly incompatible with the economic aspirations of the developing world. Even if rich nations halted emissions tomorrow, other countries would need to slash emissions by half immediately and hold there indefinitely.
That course would preclude rapid economic growth, which is why developing nations are refusing to contemplate it. Despite impressive progress, low-carbon technologies remain nowhere near capable of providing affordable, baseload power at the scale required. Instead, the world is currently experiencing a “Renaissance of Coal.” To keep developing nations on board, international negotiations have long since abandoned carbon pricing or even the basic requirement of reducing emissions. The emissions “commitments” of many large developing nations amount to only a continuation of existing trajectories.
If the West believed combatting climate change merits hobbling poorer countries against their will, it could coerce emissions cuts with threats of embargo or military force. Obviously, that should not and will not happen. But without it, dramatic cuts depend on as-yet-unidentified technological breakthroughs that a developing economy might prefer to fossil fuels. Success is by no means guaranteed, but the best chance will come if focus shifts from today's wind farms and solar panels to spurring whatever innovations might come next.
This piece originally appeared in Bloomberg View's "Eight Ways to Save the Planet."