Hot air and global warming

May 12, 1995

Ragnar Lofstedt asks if grand environmental UN conclaves really achieve anything. Global warming is in the news again. Last month signatories to the United Nations convention on climate change came together in Berlin to review progress on whether or not the majority of the industrialised nations will succeed in reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2000.

From its outset the Berlin conference faced a tall order. The United States, the world's largest carbon dioxide producer, is predicted to increase carbon dioxide emissions by 11 per cent between 1990 and the year 2000. The European Union has not implemented a carbon dioxide tax following strenuous opposition from member states including Britain. Even some of the "green countries" such as Sweden and Norway are finding the task of stabilising emissions by the end of the century difficult because of traffic increases. And the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and American car industry representatives are lobbying hard about the uncertainty surrounding global warming and the high cost of proactive measures to reduce carbon dioxide.

The Berlin conference did little to lessen observers' pessimism. Participating nations failed to agree on fundamental issues such as a need for further carbon dioxide reductions, let alone on timetables for these to be achieved. At the end of the day delegates were forced to compromise over several key issues. However, the 118 signatories did agree to meet again in 1997 to discuss targets beyond the year 2000. This was fairly encouraging, since the OPEC nations, along with the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada and New Zealand originally opposed this.

The signatories also agreed to pilot joint implementation projects - whereby industrialised countries fund cuts in carbon dioxide emissions in eastern Europe or in developing countries and offset these against their own emissions, (current technology means that it is often cheaper and easier to limit the growth of emissions in the second and third worlds rather than the first).

Nevertheless, many environmental observers were left with the feeling that flying 870 delegates from 170 countries, 1,000 observers (mainly from environmental non-governmental organisations) and over 2,000 media representatives to Berlin for two weeks was a huge waste of kerosene given that so little was accomplished. Proponents of the conference, on the other hand, such as Richard Benedick, the chief US negotiator on the Montreal protocol, argued that the conference has started a policy process that is unstoppable. Who is right?

Global warming has never been seen as a national threat. Unlike acid rain, which has led to the death of forests and the acidification of lakes, and which has prompted countries such as Norway, Sweden and Germany to adopt tougher sulphur dioxide abatement measures, global warming is seen as a world, rather than a national problem, by almost all countries.

Some scientists are highly sceptical of the message from countless environmental groups that human action will eventually destroy the natural world and that we should take combative measures as soon as possible. Cynics argue that environmental groups thrive on hyperbole, apocalyptic warnings increase membership; global warming is yet another example of this hype.

Fighting global warming is going to be very expensive. Most industrial economies depend on fossil fuel for electricity and heating. Without fossil fuels, industrial production in most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations - with the possible exception of France, Norway and Sweden which have large quantities of hydro and/or nuclear power - would grind to a virtual standstill.

Most of the decrease in carbon dioxide levels in recent years has come from substituting natural gas for coal in the generation of electricity. The United Kingdom is a prime example of this: until as recently as six months ago, environmental analysts did not believe that the UK would be able to meet its emission targets, based on the fact that traffic emissions were increasing rapidly and the major vehicle for promoting energy conservation, the Energy Savings Trust, had failed to take off. However, in early March the Government released data showing that substituting natural gas for coal in electricity generation would enable the UK to meet its targets.

Many energy experts feel that this form of fuel substitution is unwise since it only postpones a real solution (one that is fully CO2 free), while using up precious natural gas. They argue that although it is easy to reduce emissions in this way, the long-term effects will be disastrous. It is much more efficient, for example, to use natural gas directly than to use electricity generated by natural gas for domestic heating and cooking. If carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced in the electricity sector, then coal generated electricity should be replaced by renewable energy sources and/or energy conservation and not by natural gas.

Finally, there is the "defeatist" argument: it does not matter how much we reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the industrialised world since increases in emissions by developing nations (specifically China and India) will far outstrip any savings made. Some studies indicate that China's annual increase in CO2, mainly from the burning of coal, is equivalent to the UK's annual total. As China has so far made no pledges to stabilise CO2 emissions, so the defeatist argument goes, global warming will occur anyway so we might as well continue using fossil fuels at present levels.

It is hard to be optimistic. A Swedish environmentalist recently said that some kind of major natural phenomenon that could be attributed to global warming was needed to make nations seriously contemplate large and costly carbon dioxide reductions. The lack of concrete commitments at Berlin indicates that this may be the only way for national governments and their populations to enact the policy and lifestyle changes needed. Joint implementation projects do offer a way in the short to medium term of transfering technology to second and third world countries to counter future rises in CO2 emissions. The question that remains is how many more Berlin meetings will take place before we see joint implementation working and other carbon dioxide reduction policies underway?

Ragnar E. Lofstedt is a lecturer at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey.

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