UN climate panel: Fix is within reach
A new report says humans can easily limit global warming without cooling the economy
By Laurie Goering
Tribune foreign correspondent
May 5, 2007
BANGKOK -- The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which up to now has laid out some doomsday global warming scenarios, had some good news Friday: Climate change can be limited, and at what scientists said would be a reasonable price.
Just as important, existing technology will do most of the job, as long as policymakers make sure it is quickly adopted. And average citizens can make valuable contributions by making small lifestyle changes without waiting for governments to act.
But skeptics, including the Bush administration, said that the most stringent recommended measures could strain the world economy. And others doubted that the worst-polluting nations would have much incentive to cooperate.
The panel's latest report, released Friday in Bangkok, "addresses a fundamental concern of Americans: Can we do something about this?" said Peter Altman, a climate expert at the National Environmental Trust. "The answer is a resounding yes."
By rapidly ramping up the use of renewable-energy sources like solar, wind and hydroelectric power, making cars, homes and factories more energy efficient, producing electricity with natural gas rather than coal and sequestering carbon dioxide below ground, the world could hold temperature increases to around 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial-era levels, low enough to avoid potentially disastrous droughts, severe storms and sea-level rise, the report's summary said.
Just as important, dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions to levels scientists believe would stem increases in warming would cost nations at most 0.12 percent of economic growth each year through 2030, scientists said.
"The bottom line is all it takes to beat this problem is the political will to put the solutions in hand to work and to invest in clean energy solutions for the future," Altman said. "To do this at about a 10th of a percent of GDP per year is a very low-cost investment for something with tremendous payoff."
U.S. warns of recession
Bush administration officials, who along with representatives of 120 other countries approved the report's policy summary before its release, praised it for highlighting "the importance of deploying a portfolio of clean energy technologies." But they said that trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 85 percent by 2050, in line with the report's most ambitious scenarios, would have economic consequences.
"It would cause a global recession," insisted James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Our goal is reducing emissions and growing the economy," he said.
Analysts suggested that persuading China and other growing greenhouse gas emitters like India to invest in clean technology and hold down emissions would be difficult as such developing nations continue to focus first on building their economies. Developed nations also in many cases have failed to meet their own targets for reducing emissions, providing little incentive for poorer nations to make their own cuts.
But the 2,000 scientists who contributed to the report concluded that, with the needed political will, stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at near-current levels was not only possible but would cost no more than 3 percent of the world's income between now and 2030.
The costs could also drop significantly if the world reaps other benefits from reduced emissions, including healthier air, greater energy security as reliance on foreign oil drops, and export opportunities as newly developed technology is sold and adopted elsewhere, the report's authors said.
"The good news is there's substantial mitigation potential available at reasonable cost," said Jean Bogner, a Wheaton, Ill.-based landfill expert who contributed to the report. "And the positive message is it's not just one single solution, not just nuclear or reducing coal use. It's that in many sectors there are opportunities for positive contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
The report, the third in a series of UN climate change studies this year, is the first aimed at analyzing solutions to the problem. It lays out a wide range of options -- including behavioral changes -- that could be useful in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and tries to analyze the costs of making the changes.
It suggests major drops in emissions are possible through switching to natural gas from coal as a source of electricity, using hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles, incorporating active and passive solar design into buildings, using more insulation and energy-efficient appliances in homes, improving industrial energy efficiency, and using renewable energy sources.
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions also could lower atmospheric concentrations of the gas, the authors said.
Nuclear power, a controversial alternative to fossil fuels, probably will not gain wide acceptance as the world searches for ways to cut carbon emissions, if only because of its relatively high cost compared with other options, the report said.
The document also examines a range of policy measures shown to be effective in promoting emissions reductions, from fuel, road and auto taxes to energy efficiency standards for appliances, subsidies for renewable energy, mandatory fuel efficiency standards, investment in public transit and tax credits.
Voluntary agreements by industries to cut emissions, a favored measure in the United States, for the most part "have not achieved significant emissions reductions beyond business as usual," the report notes, despite a few recent exceptions.
Probably the easiest and cheapest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the report's authors said, is to improve energy efficiency. But other keys will be ensuring that massive expected growth in developing nations, particularly China and India, is cleaner and more sustainable, in part through transfer of clean technology, and that people everywhere cut consumption and emissions without waiting for politicians to act.
Lifestyle changes, not sacrifices
That could mean putting on a sweater rather than turning up the heat, buying a hybrid car, choosing a house near public transportation or hanging the laundry out to dry rather than throwing it in a clothes dryer.
"It does require lifestyle changes but not any sacrifices," insisted Jayant Sathaye, a senior energy technology scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the report's authors.
He predicted the document would help guide the creation of emissions reduction policies around the world.
"Absolutely this will drive change," he said. "If we can convince everybody they should always keep climate mitigation in their minds in whatever decisions they make, we will be a long way toward achieving the goal."
The report warns that failure to take quick action to cut greenhouse gas emissions could lead to concentrations of the gases in the atmosphere more than double the current 435 parts per million by 2100, raising average temperatures as much as 11 degrees.
"If we continue doing what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble," warned Ogunlade Davidson, a co-chairman of the working group that produced the new report. But "this report is all about solutions," he said.
"The IPCC has delivered a road map for keeping the planet safe. Now it's the turn of politicians to do more than pay just lip service," added Hans Verolme, director of the World Wildlife Fund's climate change program.
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