Climate Change: A Heating Bill for the Planet

Global warming is not just undesirable, it's also really expensive. Two reports released this week predict greenhouse gases will throw the world economy into a tailspin if not brought under control.

Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise again -- after an almost 15-year lull.

Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise again -- after an almost 15-year lull.

UN Climate Change head Yvo de Boer put it best when he introduced the UN's new climate report in Bonn on Monday: "We have to react urgently to climate change. Otherwise, it will be very expensive."

That conclusion came in concert with a UK economic study on global warming -- led by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern and also released Monday -- that forecasts a world economic crisis if climate change is not effectively and immediately combated.

The UN report details a troubling trend: The most important measurement for the human influence on the global climate -- the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- is headed, again, in the wrong direction. After curbing world CO2 emissions through the 1990s, the UN estimates emissions of heat-trapping gases rose from 17.5 to 17.9 billion tons between 2000 and 2004.

Are humans headed for a climate catastrophe? How painful do anti-emissions measures have to be? What comes after Kyoto? These questions will be on the table next week in Nairobi for UN climate talks. Whether world economic and environment ministers will agree on any solution is another question altogether.

Enormous reductions

A bitter fight lies ahead: If a massive change in energy consumption and heavy production is to take place, traffic and consumption would be have to be undergo painful reductions. By the middle of this century, CO2 emissions need to be reduced by up to 60 and 80 percent in industrialized countries, said de Boer.

Sixty to 80 percent? The climate change regulations of the 1990s don't even come close to bringing about that kind of reduction. During the '90s, CO2 levels fell, above all because the break-up of the Soviet Union had caused a worldwide economic slowdown, though advances in environmentally-friendly technology also played a role. Carbon-dioxide emissions actually decreased between 1990 and 2004 by 3.3 percent. That may seem like a paltry success over 15 years -- especially considering the reductions the new report calls for -- but it was an achievement nonetheless.

To arrive at its picture of a world trend, the UN report looked at emissions in 41 industrialized countries. Highlights include the following:

  • Germany reduced its CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2004 by a modest 0.7 percent. As a result of the collapse of industry in the former communist east, levels fell by 17.2 percent between 1990 and 2004. Sergej Kononow of the UN climate change secretariat says that's "pretty close to the targets of the Kyoto Protocol."

  • CO2 emissions in America increased by 15.8 percent between 1990 and 2004, including a 1.3 percent increase between 2000 and 2004.

  • Turkey, Spain and Portugal take the prize for blasting ever more CO2 into the atmosphere. Between 1990 and 2004, the three countries increased their greenhouse gas emissions by 72.6 percent, 49 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

  • The biggest question mark left open by the report looms in Asia. China and India, with enormous populations and booming economies, weren't even measured in the report.

The Kyoto Protocol envisioned a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in industrial nations by 2012 -- at which point developing countries would come on board. Now, with the change in trends since 2000, that goal looks unlikely. The failure of Kyoto targets may complicate worldwide negotiations because the people most affected by climate change live in developing countries. Africa will be the worst affected, says Stern, author of the UK report; at the same time Africa produces a relatively small amount of greenhouse gases.

EU Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso confessed that EU countries will probably not meet their self-imposed CO2-reduction targets. "This is not a fabrication of some environmentalists," he said, "this is a serious problem that threatens the future of life on this planet."

Nevertheless, Barroso said on Monday at an energy conference in Lisbon that the question of competitiveness and supply security took top priority.

"We can grow and be green"

The US rejected Kyoto and has not reduced its CO2 emissions since 1990. Nevertheless, the US is slowly discovering its green side. Major American companies have instituted their own CO2-reduction policies and individual states like California are enforcing their own environmental laws.

Indeed, Europe can't simply point its finger across the Atlantic. According to Stern's UK Report, Europe has to reduce its CO2 emissions by 30 percent by 2020 and 60 percent by 2050. "This is feasible," said Stern. "We can grow and be green." He argues that if climate change is ignored, the damage to the global economy would be comparable to the Great Depression or the world wars.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the Stern Report "has demolished the last remaining argument for inaction in the face of climate change." Britain is pushing for a new framework that would include the US, China and India -- who are not a part of the Kyoto treaty.


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