Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

May 31st, 2008:

Global Hot Air

As the world’s environmental crisis deepens, leaders haggle over what, if anything, must be done

Kevin Rafferty – Updated on May 31, 2008 – SCMP

Fresh reports every day tell of glaciers melting, thinning polar ice triggering prospects of a new colonial scramble for the riches under the Arctic ice cap, dangers to the natural habitat of polar bears and worries about rising water levels inundating low-lying countries from Kiribati to Bangladesh. Then there are the pieces of a trillion plastic bags that are discarded every year on both sides of the Pacific being fed mistakenly by albatrosses to their chicks on remote Midway Atoll, and soaring oil prices causing truck drivers and fishermen across Europe to set up blockades.

With this background, environment ministers, scientists and bureaucrats from the Group of Eight industrialised nations and leading developing countries – like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa – met in Kobe, Japan, last weekend. Their aim was to do something about the most pressing environmental issues facing this fragile planet. Three days of deliberations produced just another few million dollars of hot air. They agreed to try to agree to halve emissions of gases blamed for global warming by 2050 – which is almost two generations away – and called on the rich countries – which is them – to lead the way. Just to show that they have their eye on hot-button issues, they also declared that reducing the use of disposable plastic bags and other consumer products is a good idea.

Devotees of international diplomacy said Kobe represented a significant step forward from last year’s decision in Heiligendamm, Germany, to “seriously consider” slashing output of greenhouse gases. Kobe now has its own special line in the index of international negotiations, as “the Kobe Initiative”.

It should be named “the Kobe Pious Wish”. Indeed, how could anyone dream of reaching a real agreement while George W. Bush is in the White House? Scott Fulton, of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said the purpose of Kobe was to avoid “delicate subjects” like midterm emissions-reduction targets. How could it be otherwise when the US has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which requires greenhouse gas cuts of a mere 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012?

Washington does its defiant diplomatic dance with the grace of a spoiled child screaming that it won’t join the party unless the new children, notably China and India, promise in advance not to drink too much. The newcomers ask why they must restrict growth when the industrialised countries have despoiled the world’s resources and fouled the atmosphere for years. There are few reasons to be optimistic that a new US president will change American attitudes.

Global warming itself is becoming a fervently fought issue that could turn into a latter-day religious war. Most scientists accept the overwhelming evidence that global warming poses a major threat. But there are still small groups of non-believers, with powerful political and business backing, who demand more evidence or more time.

Even among the believers, there are deep divisions: some, like Al Gore and Nicholas Stern, argue for strict action now to save the Earth for future generations; others claim that the prices Mr Gore would impose on this generation are too high.

One camp wants to pour resources into the development of new species of genetically modified trees which will gobble up the harmful gases and thus remove the problem. Others argue that scientists have always solved problems in the past.

Yet others say global warming has stolen the limelight and that other issues like environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, global hunger and social injustice are more serious and immediate dangers.

So the hot air of greenhouse gases and the hot air of politicians talking continue virtually unabated. Yet, surely, it is time to do something urgently to lighten the damaging footprint of humans. The issues are interlocked, and arguing over which should be tackled first encourages inaction and exacerbates the problems.

The rising world population has seen the available land per person fall from 8 hectares in 1900 to about 2 hectares today. The cutting down of forests, pollution of water sources, demands for higher standards of living and more energy consumption are all killing the planet.

Spoilt Americans are screaming about the high price of fuel for their gas-guzzling cars as petrol reaches US$4 a gallon. China and India also have lots to learn about responsible economic management. India pays out US$20 billion a year in subsidies to keep petrol and kerosene prices below market rates. China’s prices are lower still.

It is surely time for the G8 leaders to take some simple steps that might pave the way for more substantial measures. First, admit China and India as full members to the group, so that they are part of the solution, not an extension of the problem. Next, commit to measures of minimum fuel-efficiency of vehicles, petrol prices that reflect the market – say, a minimum of US$5 a gallon – and shared moves to promote energy efficiency. Learn from what Japan did in the first oil shock of the 1970s.

The markets and speculators are already making a mockery of the politicians. Prices of oil have doubled since May last year, from US$65 a barrel to US$130, and US$200 a barrel oil is no longer mere fantasy. But global demand has risen by just 2 per cent.

Common action may stick in America’s craw. But, otherwise, the law of the jungle will prevail. Who will win? China and India are better placed than the profligate US, used to a high-energy-consuming economy that has run up huge debts.

China has huge foreign exchange reserves and has quietly been wooing friends to assure supplies of oil and other commodities.

But all of us must learn that we all share this fragile home and, like the albatross chicks on Midway, suffer from its damage.

Kevin Rafferty is researching a book on the global environment

Beijing Pollution Top Of Scale

AFP – 31st May 2008

Pollution levels in Beijing hit the top of the scale yesterday, just 73 days before the Olympics, prompting a government warning for residents with respiratory problems to stay indoors. “Sensitive individuals should avoid going outdoors,” the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said on its website, announcing that air quality was at “hazardous” level five, the worst grade. The main pollutant was suspended particulates. AFP

The Cost of Climate Change

What We’ll Pay if Global Warming Continues Unchecked

Global warming comes with a big price tag for every country around the world. The 80 percent reduction in U.S. emissions that will be needed to lead international action to stop climate change may not come cheaply, but the cost of failing to act will be much greater. New research shows that if present trends continue, the total cost of global warming will be as high as 3.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Four global warming impacts alone—hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs—will come with a price tag of 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP, or almost $1.9 trillion annually (in today’s dollars) by 2100. We know how to avert most of these damages through strong national and international action to reduce the emissions that cause global warming. But we must act now. The longer we wait, the more painful—and expensive—the consequences will be.

This report focuses on a “business-as-usual” future in which the world continues to emit heat-trapping gases at an increasing rate. We base our economic projections on the most pessimistic of the business-as-usual climate forecasts considered “likely” by the scientific community. In this projected climate future, which is still far from the worst case scenario, global warming causes drastic changes to the planet’s climate, with average temperature increases of 13 degrees Fahrenheit in most of the United States and 18 degrees Fahrenheit in Alaska over the next 100 years. The effects of climate change will be felt in the form of more severe heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and other erratic weather events—and in their impact on our economy’s bottom line.

We estimate U.S. economic impacts from global warming in two ways: a detailed focus on four specific
impacts and a comprehensive look at the costs to the country as a whole. Our detailed accounting of costs begins with historical data for four especially important climate impacts: hurricane damages, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs. We then build upward to estimate the impact of future climatic conditions in these four impact areas. The second part of our analysis is a comprehensive view of climate change impacts: we take a general rule about how the climate affects the country as a whole and then apply that rule to business-as-usual climate forecasts. Although the detailed impact studies can provide only a partial accounting of the full economic costs estimated by our comprehensive model, the impact studies allow us to examine the costs of climate change with greater specificity for the particular case of the United States.

Putting a Price Tag on Global Warming

Droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes have already caused multibillion-dollar losses, and these extreme weather events will likely become more frequent and more devastating as the climate continues to change. Tourism, agriculture, and other weather-dependent industries will be hit especially hard, but no one will be exempt.

Household budgets, as well as business balance sheets, will feel the impact of higher energy and water costs. This report estimates what the United States will pay as a result of four of the most serious impacts of global warming in a business-as-usual scenario—that is, if we do not take steps to push back against climate change:

Hurricane damages: $422 billion in economic losses caused by the increasing intensity of Atlantic and Gulf Coast storms.

In the business-as-usual climate future, higher sea-surface temperatures result in stronger and more
damaging hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Even with storms of the same intensity, future
hurricanes will cause more damage as higher sea levels exacerbate storm surges, flooding, and erosion. In recent years, hurricane damages have averaged $12 billion and more than 120 deaths per year. With business-as-usual emissions, average annual hurricane damages in 2100 will have grown by $422 billion and an astounding 760 deaths just from climate change impacts.

Real estate losses: $360 billion in damaged or destroyed residential real estate as a result of rising sea

Our business-as-usual scenario forecasts 23 inches of sea-level rise by 2050 and 45 inches by 2100. If
nothing is done to hold back the waves, rising sea levels will inundate low-lying coastal properties. Even those properties that remain above water will be more likely to sustain storm damage, as encroachment of the sea allows storm surges to reach inland areas that were not previously affected. By 2100, U.S. residential real estate losses will be $360 billion per year.

Energy costs: $141 billion in increasing energy costs as a result of the rising demand for energy.

As temperatures rise, higher demand for airconditioning and refrigeration across the country will increase energy costs, and many households and businesses, especially in the North, that currently don’t have air conditioners will purchase them. Only a fraction of these increased costs will be offset by reduced demand for heat in Northern states.The highest net energy costs—after taking into consideration savings from lower heating bills—will fall on Southeast and Southwest states. Total costs will add up to more than $200 billion for extra electricity and new air conditioners, compared with almost $60 billion in reduced heating costs. The net result is that energy sector costs will be $141 billion higher in 2100 due to global warming.

Water costs: $950 billion to provide water to the driest and most water-stressed parts of the United
States as climate change exacerbates drought conditions and disrupts existing patterns of water supply.

The business-as-usual case forecasts less rainfall in much of the United States—or, in some states, less rain at the times of year when it is needed most. By 2100, providing the water we need throughout the country will cost an estimated $950 billion more per year as a result of climate change. Drought conditions, already a problem in Western states and in the Southeast, will become more frequent and more severe.

Our analysis finds that, if present trends continue, these four global warming impacts alone will come with a price tag of almost $1.9 trillion annually (in today’s dollars), or 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP per year by 2100. And this bottom line represents only the cost of the four categories we examined in detail; the total cost of continuing on a business-as-usual path will be even greater—as high as 3.6 percent of GDP when economic and noneconomic costs such as health impacts and wildlife damages are factored in.

New Model Provides More Accurate Picture of the Cost of Climate Change

Many economic models have attempted to capture the costs of climate change for the United States. For the most part, however, these analyses grossly underestimate costs by making predictions that are out of step with the scientific consensus on the daunting scope of climatic changes and the urgent need to reduce global warming emissions. The Economics of Climate Change—a report commissioned by the British government and released in 2006, also known as the Stern Review after its author, Nicholas Stern—employed a different model that represented a major step forward in economic analysis of climate impacts. We used a revised version of the Stern Review’s model to provide a more accurate, comprehensive picture of the cost of global warming to the U.S. economy. This new model estimates that the true cost of all aspects of global warming—including economic losses, noneconomic damages, and increased risks of catastrophe—will reach 3.6 percent of U.S. GDP by 2100 if business-as-usual emissions are allowed to continue.

Global Warming and the International Economy

Damage on the order of a few percentage points of GDP each year would be a serious impact for any country, even a relatively rich one like the United States. And we will not experience the worst of the global problem: The sad irony is that while richer countries like the United States are responsible for much greater per person greenhouse gas emissions, many of the poorest countries around the world will experience damages that are much larger as a percentage of their national output.

For countries that have fewer resources with which to fend off the consequences of climate change, the impacts will be devastating. The question is not just how we value damages to future generations living in the United States, but also how we value costs to people around the world — today and in the future—whose economic circumstances make them much more vulnerable than we are. Decisions about when and how to respond to climate change must depend not only on our concern for our own comfort and economic well-being, but on the well-being of those who share the same small world with us. Our disproportionate contribution to the problem of climate change should be accompanied by elevated responsibility to participate, and even to lead the way, in its solution.

It is difficult to put a price tag on many of the costs of climate change: loss of human lives and health,
species extinction, loss of unique ecosystems, increased social conflict, and other impacts extend far beyond any monetary measure. But by measuring the economic damage of global warming in the United States, we can begin to understand the magnitude of the challenges we will face if we continue to do nothing to push back against climate change. Curbing global warming pollution will require a substantial investment, but the cost of doing nothing will be far greater. Immediate action can save lives, avoid trillions of dollars of economic damage, and put us on a path to solving one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

View the complete study on The Cost Of Climate Change.