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On eve of UN meeting, reports reveal an overwhelming urge to do nothing. Overall, global carbon and climate policy agendas are in retreat.

It’s been 23 years since I first wrote about the greenhouse effect and climate change for the Financial Post, on June 29, 1988. The column began:

Stop the presses! Hold that tape! The hot news item of the moment is hot news. Anything that deals with temperatures rising, whether for the day, the week, the century, or the millennium, is stuff that can be used to feed the fires of the mass media, which rage constantly out of control, consuming and destroying everything that falls in the way.

And what is in the media’s path right now is “the greenhouse effect,’’ a theory of environmental doom that has been suffering from benign neglect for most of the past decade. It would still be suffering from benign neglect if Mother Nature had not sent heat waves and drought to North America over the past few months, no doubt for the purpose of giving all of us something more to worry about throughout the summer.

Each day the temperature rises above 30C, millions of NorthAmericans will contemplate the arrival of the greenhouse effect and lapse into guilt and anxiety over the drastic economic dislocation that is inevitable no matter what we do. Whether we stop the greenhouse effect or allow it to continue seems to make no difference; either way, economic trouble looms.

Not much has changed since June, 1988. As the world chugs through the global sovereign-debt crisis brought on by two decades of massive government over-expansion to alter the world’s economic system, there is little appetite for grand government schemes to alter the world’s climate system. As a result, climate-change policy and carbon-emission controls are rapidly moving off the policy agenda. Benign neglect appears to be back in vogue.

In the United States, a New York Times environment writer last Sunday lamented the fact that global warming has lost momentum. “America has turned agnostic on the issue,” it said. The article quoted Andrew J. Hoffman, director of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Sustainable Development: “In Washington, ‘climate change’ has become a lightning rod; it’s a four-letter word.”

Polls show Americans are majority non-believers in the theory of man-made global warming. The Times report portrayed the U.S. attitude as somehow unique and claimed that “nearly every other nation accepts climate change as a pressing problem.” But that’s not obviously true for those of us who follow global-warming policy news. Every other nation may accept the idea of climate change, but most also appear to be backing down on action.

A sampling of news reports from the last few days suggests policy is drifting away from major targeted reductions in carbon emissions. Indeed, do nothing appears to be the main unwritten agenda item for the next global climate congress — the 17th meeting since the creation in 1995 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — set for Nov. 28 in South Africa.

Consider these items from all over, courtesy of

Japan Reconsiders Plan to Cut Carbon Emissions, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19 “Japan is reconsidering plans to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 25% by 2020 due to a rethinking of is energy future, and the country is worried that it is spending too much on carbon-credit programs.”

Green Europe Imperilled as Crisis Triggers Carbon Collapse, Bloomberg, Oct. 10 “The European sovereign-debt crisis … now has another potential victim: energy policy.” Lower carbon prices as countries sell carbon credits discourage European utilities from investing in wind farms and solar plants.

U.K. renewable energy subsidies slashed, The Guardian, Oct. 20 “Public subsidies for a range of renewable-energy technologies are to be cut under plans unveiled by the government on Thursday as ministers respond to complaints of ‘green taxes’ driving up energy bills.”

Europe Reconsidering Its Unilateral Climate Policy, The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18 “The European Union is for the first time clearly questioning whether it should press ahead with long-term plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions if other countries don’t follow suit, in what could herald a significant policy shift for a region that has been at the forefront of advocating action to combat climate change.”

Carbon Capture Scheme Collapse, BBC, Oct. 19 “A £1-billion project to turn a Scottish power station into a world leader in climate-change technology has collapsed. Plans for the U.K.’s first carbon-capture project at the Longannet power station in Fife have been scrapped, the Energy Secretary has confirmed.”

Anger over failure of carbon-capture project, Financial Times, Oct. 19 “Confirmation that a flagship carbon-capture and storage project at the Longannet power station in Fife will not proceed was greeted with dismay by environmentalists.”

Overall, global carbon and climate policy agendas are in retreat. The Cameron government has said the United Kingdom will not adopt aggressive carbon reduction programs unless the European Union also moves. And Europe says it will not move if the rest of the world doesn’t agree to take similar action. The climate clause in the G20 finance ministers’ communiqué last weekend was a declaration of inaction. “We discussed the World Bank-IMF-OECD-RDBs report on mobilizing climate finance and the recommendations of Trevor Manuel based on this report, taking into account the principles of UNFCCC. We call for further work by MDBs and UN organizations.”

In Canada, Ottawa has already announced it intends to follow the United States, which is doing nothing. Locally, some provinces are heading for green-policy meltdown. In November, Ontario’s Auditor-General is set to release a report on the province’s green-energy subsidy and feed-in-tariff regime. And, following the U.K., Ontario will soon have to revamp policies and prices for solar and wind power.

A lot of policy and science talk but little action has marked the greenhouse gas issue since 1989. As economic turmoil and sovereign-debt crises spread, no government or politicians can seriously entertain major carbon adventures. Having made a mess of economic intervention, governments are not yet ready to do it all again over climate.

Financial Post, 21 October 2011