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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

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