Political will is needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions


Curbing climate change is not going to do anything as easy as fixing the hole in the ozone layer. The problem of global warming is much more complex because it requires a whole range of policy responses - and even if some of these are agreed in Kyoto, it will take decades to change the chemical balance in the atmosphere. Contrast that with the ozone issue. In 1987, just two years after scientists shocked the world with their discovery of a "hole" in the Earth's protective ozone shield over Antarctica, we had the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) - the main culprits blamed for depleting the ozone layer.

This deal was possible because there was widespread international agreement on the need to take action, the cost of phasing out CFCs in aerosols and refrigeration equipment was relatively small and industry co-operated; it also helped that ICI and DuPont, the main CFC producers, had patents on alternatives. Climate change cannot be solved by such a simple "technical fix". The industrialised world, particularly the US, is addicted to oil and other fossil fuels. Cutting their energy consumption - and the greenhouse gases they generate - is not something most countries are prepared to do. But many of the measures to combat climate change should be initiated anyway, because they save money while protecting the environment, as Paul Brown points out in his book Global Warming - Can Civilisation Survive? These are known as "no regrets" or "win-win" policies.

Traffic is now the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These could be cut by a third with more efficient engines, lightweight construction and improved design - without any reduction in comfort and performance. Similarly, the efficiency of turning fossil fuels into energy could be doubled to 60 per cent using existing technologies such as "combined cycle" gas turbines for electricity generation. Major industrial users switching to combined heat and power plants would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The Dutch have shown that their CO2 emissions could be cut by 80 per cent over the next 50 years, without stunting the growth of their economy. In Germany, energy-saving measures and the industries which have grown up around them have created an estimated 400,000 jobs in 20 years. At one stage, the nuclear industry sought to portray itself as a saviour of humanity, arguing that its power stations emit no greenhouse gases. But the public is rightly suspicious about its safety record, and there is also the perennial problem of what to do with all the radioactive waste it generates. Renewable energy sources, such as solar power, are clearly a better bet. However, with fossil fuels so cheap, relatively speaking, solar power is not yet competitive. But if the wider environmental costs associated with burning fossil fuels were factored into the equation, solar energy - and wind power - would become much more competitive. This could be done by imposing a "carbon tax", as the European Commission and the ESRI have suggested.

Taking account of wider environmental costs is also favoured by the UN's panel of scientists. What they are saying, in Brown's view, is that if emissions from EU and US power plants contribute towards the disappearance of the Maldives, a price per tonne of carbon dioxide could be charged by way of a penalty.

Another method of meeting CO2 reduction targets is through "joint implementation". As Brown explains, "if Germany spent money in Poland building new power stations, it might reduce Europe's total production of carbon dioxide by a larger amount than if it updated its own already high-quality stations".

Massive tree-planting schemes all over the planet would also help to soak up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But tropical rain forests, the world's most valuable "carbon sinks", are still being felled at an alarming rate, and the amount of CO2 released by the recent massive forest fires in Indonesia is incalculable.

In 1988, one US power company decided to plant 52 million trees in Guatemala to absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as its new coal-fired power plant in Connecticut would be emitting into the atmosphere. This turns joint implementation into "conscience money" for avoiding hard decisions at home.

Current projections indicate that CO2 emissions from developing countries will outstrip those from the industrialised world by the year 2020. But most of them will not do anything about climate change unless the countries which first caused the problem show they are serious in tackling their emissions.

China, with its huge coal reserves and endless supply of cheap labour, is building a large number of coal-fired power stations. Providing the Chinese with the technology for more environment-friendly alternatives would be a concrete way to tackle global warming.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature have begun to target pension funds and other financial institutions to persuade them to switch investments from fossil fuel industries to the alternative energy sector.

The biggest problem in dealing with climate change is its long-term character. Politicians tend to operate on short-term agendas. However, world leaders must surely bear in mind the "precautionary principle" and not wait until it is too late to take steps to protect the planet.