2. Global Warming

Doing something about global warming

Governments can blunt the feared global warming of the future by adopting energy policies that shift from coal and oil to natural gas, and eventually to energy sources that do not generate heat-trapping gases. Every time you turn a light on, the electricity most likely comes from burning coal. It still supplies 56 percent of the electricity in the United States. Yet, for the same energy production, coal burning releases more carbon into the air than burning oil and natural gas releases even less. All that carbon combines with oxygen in the air to create carbon dioxide.

Some sources of electricity emit no carbon into the air and produce no heat-trapping gases. They include hydroelectric power, solar energy, and the power of the wind. In the United States, current subsidies and tax incentives for the development of oil, coal and natural gas amount to about 20 billion dollars a year. If these funds were shifted to the cleaner energy sources, it would make them more competitive. Of course, the largest carbon-free source of energy is nuclear power, which produces 20 percent of the United States requirement, and nuclear energy is subsidized by about 10 billion dollars a year.

Countries can avoid the clear cutting of their forests and plant a lot more trees. Each tree removes about a ton of carbon dioxide from the air, locking the gas into its branches, trunk and leaves. Trees also tend to outlive humans and they prevent erosion. By protecting existing forests and planting new ones, countries could offset 10 to 20 percent of the expected carbon dioxide build up during the next century.

Mandates for limiting fossil-fuel emissions or protecting forests are nevertheless difficult to legislate, partly because the threat is uncertain. Policy makers like black and white issues, but future global warming effects are gray. There are pros and cons to a hotter world, winners and loser.

There is also a lack of immediacy. Very dramatic warming effects occur on a vast time scale, over decades and centuries, so we are unlikely to witness them in our lifetimes. They certainly will not happen before the next re-election campaign of government leaders.

Global climate change is an issue that all countries have to deal with, both the rich industrial nations and the poor developing ones. But there are stark differences between the countries, blocking any substantive international agreement so far.

People in the poorer nations argue that the average person in the rich countries eats more food, consumes more energy and poisons the air more than they do. And the industrial countries became wealthy largely by burning the coal and oil that produced most of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that is now in the air. They are thus responsible for most of whatever global warming is likely to bring. The rich nations are still responsible for most emissions today, about 80 percent of it. So, the poorer nations say, it is only right that the wealthy countries be the ones to cut back on their emissions.

The developing countries point out that they will endure greater damage from future climate disasters caused by the rich countries’ emissions. Global warming, for example, is expected to increase crop yields in temperate northern regions, where the rich, industrial countries are located, while harming agriculture in the lower, warmer latitudes where most poor nations are.

Rich nations have the resources needed to adapt to climate changes; for some other countries this is not an option. The poorer countries are hard-pressed enough to assure the economic survival of their rapidly growing populations. As the produce more and more people and less and less food, these countries will not want to limit the economic growth required for survival.

On the other hand, the industrial countries insist that warming is a global concern, and that all countries must share in the solution. This is particularly so, they argue, since the developing countries’ emissions are expected to surpass those of the rich nations in 20 or 30 years.

The United States has been cast as the wealthy villain, the most greedy, selfish and irresponsible of all. It is by far the biggest single producer of heat-trapping gases, both in total output and on a per capita basis, contributing 25 percent of the total with just 4 percent of the world’s populations. By way of comparison, the average European consumer, who also lives in an industrial country, consumes about half as much energy as the average American. So a little self-restraint and denial might be appropriate for the Americans, and it might help their strategic vulnerability.

Much of America’s energy comes from oil-producing nations in the Middle East, and the United States spends at least 25 billion dollars each year in their military defense. Yet, most of them have deplorable human rights records and enormous gaps between rich and poor. These conditions have helped breed the terrorism that now threatens the United Stares.

And what about the poor developing nations? They are not about to adopt restraints that might slow their industrial growth just to keep the rich, industrialized nations a little cooler. Yet, if the developing countries take the same path as the wealthy ones, burning coal and oil to fuel their growth, then atmospheric carbon dioxide will soar.

If the poorer nations are forced to accelerate the burning of fossil fuels, to feed and house and employ their expanding populations, then their carbon dioxide production will soon dwarf that of the rich industrialized countries. By 2015 the nations of Asia, led by China and India, will surpass even the unrestrained emissions of the richer nations.

So what’s being done about the problem? In December 1997 representatives of the world’s nations met in Kyoto, Japan, to establish, for the first time, specific legally binding targets and timetables for the emission of heat-trapping gases (Focus GW.1). The treaty, called the Kyoto Protocol, would require the United States and other industrial countries to reduce emissions by 2012 to an average of 5.2 percent below emission levels in 1990. The accord has been signed by more than 100 countries, but there is no way that is going to cool the planet very soon. In order to take effect, the Kyoto Protocol has to be ratified by a substantial number of industrial nations, but none of them have ratified it, at least by 2001, and they probably won’t.

Focus GW.1. The Kyoto Protocol

In December 1997, at an International Climate Summit in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, more than 100 nations agreed to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases that can warm the planet. Known as the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or just the Kyoto Protocol for short, the agreement calls for reductions in the emissions of six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, two fluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

The accord established different levels of reductions for individual countries. Thirty-eight industrialized countries would be required to reduce emissions by an average of 5.2 percent by 2012 compared with their 1990 levels. The United States would be committed to a reduction of 7 percent below 1990 levels, the European Union to 8 percent and Japan to 6 percent.

The developing countries are exempt from mandatory emission controls, since the vast majority of the emissions to date have not been caused by them. Even the fast-growing developing countries face no constraints, though the their emissions are expected to surpass those of the industrial nations in two or three decades.

The protocol will take effect once it is ratified by at least 55 nations that collectively account for at least 55 percent of 1990 carbon dioxide emissions. The terms become binding on an individual country only after its government ratifies the treaty. No industrial country had ratified the treaty by late 2001.

The industrial countries cannot easily meet the limits of the Kyoto Protocol even if it is ratified. On the eve of the Kyoto negotiations in 1997, America’s emissions were already up 10 percent from 1990 levels and they have risen about 1.2 percent a year since then. Other industrial nations, too, have recorded rising, not falling, emissions.

Powerful liberal groups have been calling for more ambitious limits to emissions, while more conservative interests argue against the drastic measures already required in the Kyoto Protocol. Both groups incorporate selected evidence about future global warming that agrees with their objectives, avoiding a balanced appraisal of the dangers.

The details of the Kyoto Protocol continue to be discussed in international bargaining sessions. It includes principles of international emissions trading which would allow a country to trade reductions if they fall below the country’s limit. If an industrial nation were to exceed its emission quota, it could purchase the unused rights from lower-emitting countries, but the rulebook for these trades is still being worked out.

Under a joint implementation plan, a wealthy country could get credit towards its targets by investing in specific emissions-saving projects in developing countries, such as more efficient power planets. In another tradeoff, some countries in the former Soviet Union might be able to sell emission credits for reductions that occurred prior to the negotiations, primarily as the result of national economic problems.

Another provision under negotiation counts vast forests towards a country’s emission-reduction credits, since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. Since forests can always be cut down, this is nevertheless just a temporary abatement, and not the same as a permanent prevention of carbon dioxide from leaving vehicles, power plants or factories.

As the diplomats and politicians continue their stately dance, the Kyoto Protocol will probably live or die on the basis of its economic repercussions. No nation will accept the treaty if its causes serious damage to the country’s national economy, and economic incentives will be required to implement the planned reductions.

The United States continues to find the Kyoto Protocol unacceptable because it unfairly requires only the industrialized countries to cut emission. The “one-sided” treaty is not likely to become acceptable until the fast-developing countries, like China and India, also face emission constraints. So the developing countries must eventually be persuaded to participate in any reduction of the emission of heat-trapping gases if the treaty is to survive.

Both the rich and poor nations want an agreement that will not cause serious harm to their national economy. Emission restraints will certainly be costly, most likely r

A global solution needed, in which all nations participate in curtailing the emissions and agree on the best way to achieve it. Whatever the plan, its implementation should include a change in energy consumption habits to slow the inevitable global warming.

Individuals can reduce their consumption of the fossil fuels that electrify and heat their homes, offices and schools, power their vehicles, and fuel their factories. Ordinary people can use energy efficient appliances and lighting, reduce their daily electricity use, drive their cars less, and insulate their homes and offices so they require less heat. Some of this energy conservation has already begun, but not enough is being done.

One third of all greenhouse emissions come from automobiles. Burning a gallon of gasoline in an average car produces 9 kilograms of heat-trapping gases, and over the course of a year that car dumps about 1,000 kilograms of waste gas into the air – which is about equal to the weight of the car. A sports utility vehicle emits twice as much, and so does a pickup truck. So the world’s population should buy fewer cars, at least those that are powered by gasoline, and they should especially avoid the gas-guzzling kind.

Every large automaker is now investing heavily in new engine technology to improve fuel efficiency. We already have hybrid cars that combine internal combustion with battery power, and we may eventually be able to purchase cars that use clean hydrogen gas as fuel.

And many of the fiercest corporate opponents to emission regulations are now voluntarily cutting their emissions of heat-trapping gases, perhaps to head off tougher regulations in the future. Oil giants like Shell and BP are taking steps to end the burning off of natural gas at oil wells – some say to mollify environmentalists in their European markets where there is strong public interest in global warming. Large automakers in Europe, including Ford and General Motors, have reluctantly agreed to improve the fuel efficiency of their automobiles. Other corporate giants like Du Pont are lowering their output of certain chemicals, the CFCs, that contribute to global warming, an action that began years ago because some of the same chemicals damage the ozone layer.

So humans have modified the atmosphere, warming the globe, and we are starting to do something about it. But its bound to be only a temporary fix. In the long run nature will take over the weather and climate once again. A hundred million years ago, when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, there were no ice caps and tropical plants flourished near the South Pole. Deep cold nearly turned the Earth into a ball of ice about 10 thousand years ago, when the planet was in the depths of an ice age. In just a few million years from now, entire continents and oceans can be destroyed or created new, changing the flow of air and ocean currents and altering global weather patterns. And even if it is pretty warm right now, the die is cast for the next glaciation and the ice will come again.

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Copyright 2010, Professor Kenneth R. Lang, Tufts University