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Can a divided world tackle global warming in 2005?
By Fiona Harvey
Published: December 30 2004 20:02 | Last updated: December 30 2004
Polar bears could be extinct by the end of this century, scientists
predict, if nothing is done to halt global climate change. Already,
the Arctic ice sheet is half the thickness of 30 years agoand 10 per
cent less extensive, according to the Arctic Climate Impact
Assessment, the work of more than 250 scientists over four years. They
blame global warming, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and warn
of consequences all over the world if ice covering solid ground melts
and sea levels rise.
Warnings such as these and fears that the heat waves, floods and
hurricanes of last year could have been early consequences of global
warming have prompted Tony Blair, the British prime minister, to make
tackling climate change a priority for world leaders in the coming
"Our effect on the environment, and in particular on climate change,
is large and growing . . . We cannot afford to ignore the warnings,"
Mr Blair told business leaders in September when he announced plans to
put climate change high on the agenda during Britain's tenure as
chairman of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations from
January. Mr Blair will also make the issue one of the main themes of
the UK's six-month presidency of the European Union from July 2005.
Mr Blair plans to highlight global warming by holding an international
science conference in February; as well as a conference in March
bringing together, for the first time, environment and development
ministers for G8 countries; and by making it a point for discussion at
the G8 summit in July. This will represent, according to the UK
government, an unprecedented international effort to focus on a
strategy for tackling climate change.
"What we want to do is explore what common ground we can find among G8
members about some of the issues that are relevant to climate change.
We hope to have constructive discussions," says Margaret Beckett,
Britain's environment secretary.
Even without Britain's interjection, 2005 could be a landmark year for
attempts to deal with global warming. The European Union's scheme for
trading in greenhouse gas emissions begins in January (see below) and
the Kyoto protocol will come into force in February, binding most
industrialised countries to reduce their emissions to below the levels
Sir David King, the British government's chief scientific adviser, has
called climate change "the most severe problem that we are facing
today - more serious even than the threat of terrorism". He has said
repeatedly that failure to address the problem will result in
His strong words opened up the faultlines that lie beneath the climate
Mr Blair's pledge to push the issue up the G8 agenda surprised
observers around the world, particularly those within the US political
establishment. That Mr Blair should stake the success of Britain's
leadership of the G8 and EU on an environmental issue puzzled advisers
to the US president George W. Bush, who has resisted international
action on climate change in the form of the UN-brokered Kyoto
protocol. "No one can figure out why he's making it such a big deal,"
said one US official, who declined to be named. Mr Blair's attempts to
raise the matter with Mr Bush are believed to have met a cool
response, which does not bode well for his agenda.
Climate change arouses passionate opinions not just among politicians
but also environmental pressure groups, business leaders, developing
nations and anti-poverty campaigners. The issue divides scientists,
politicians and public opinion: a poll by Mori, the market research
company, published in November found that nearly two-thirds of the
British public wanted political leaders to take urgent action on
climate change, but fewer than half of US adults (46 per cent) agreed,
saying "no major action should be taken until we know more".
Despite these divisions and the Kyoto protocol's bumpy ride from its
beginnings at the Rio earth summit in 1992, and the opposition it has
faced from the US and, until only recently, from Russia, the treaty
has been welcomed. Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United
Nations, said: "This is a historic step forward in the world's efforts
to combat a truly global threat. Businesses that have been exploring
the realm of green technology now have a strong signal about the
market viability of their products and services. And the financial
community and insurance industry, which have been trying to put a
price on the risks associated with climate change, now have a stronger
basis for their decision-making."
But even as the Kyoto protocol stands at last on the brink of
implementation, the landmark environmental treaty looks in danger of
failing to live up to expectations. The US, the world's biggest
emitter of carbon dioxide, has refused to ratify the treaty under Mr
Bush. But perhaps just as worrying for proponents of the treaty is the
growing reluctance of developing countries to take on responsibilities
for cutting their carbon emissions. Developing countries are not
required to make cuts under the first stage of the treaty, which
expires in 2012. The stages beyond that have yet to be negotiated and
larger developing countries may be required to curb their emissions
At the latest conference on the treaty earlier this month in Buenos
Aires, developing countries such as China, India and Brazil used their
muscle to resist any extension of the protocol's provisions to limit
their carbon emissions. They argue that such limitations would limit
their growth as fossil fuels are the basis for most of their
Nestor Kirchner, president of Argentina, accused richer countries of
double standards in insisting on debt repayments while refusing to
acknowledge their own "environmental debt" to poorer countries, which
would suffer the worst effects of climate change.
The US has also resisted any extensions to Kyoto's provisions, in
opposing attempts to open discussions on future stages of the treaty
beyond 2012. Though she insisted that the US had long-term plans to
counter climate change, Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for
global affairs, said: "It would be premature. I'm focused on what is,
not what if."
A combination of the US and some large developing nations could pose
serious problems for the treaty's supporters, chiefly the EU, Japan,
Canada and some smaller developing nations. Resistance from larger
developing nations will weigh even more heavily as their carbon
emissions grow. A report at the conference from the Pew Centre on
Climate Change, a US-based research organisation, found that China was
the second biggest emitter of carbon in 2000, responsible for 14.8 per
cent of the world's emissions to the US's 20.6 per cent. The EU
accounted for 14 per cent, while India produced 5.5 per cent of
worldwide emissions and Brazil 2.5 per cent.
Global concerns about climate change have been growing for decades.
The global temperature is thought to have increased by 0.6 degrees
Celsius or 1 degree Fahrenheit in the course of the 20th century. Most
of this has been attributed to human effects, such as the burning of
fossil fuels, increased agriculture and the decline of the earth's
natural "carbon sinks" in the form of forests. Recent studies have
added weight to predictions that global warming could accelerate.
Monitoring from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii revealed that the
amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising faster than ever:
it has been increasing each year by about 1.5 parts per million for
several decades, but in 2002 and 2003 increased by more than 2ppm.
Some of the effects of global climate change may already have been
felt. The heatwave that struck Europe last summer, claiming thousands
of lives, has been blamed on climate change. Flooding in areas from
Britain's west coast to Bangladesh has also been blamed on climate
change, as have changes to wildlife in north America.
Estimates put the economic costs of global warming at $150bn a year in
10 years' time. This would translate into insurance claims of up to
$40bn a year.
But the science behind predictions of global warming has come under
fierce attack. Sceptical scientists have brought out their own reports
to show that though some regions are warming, others appear to be
cooling. They also argue that the world experienced many periods of
warming in the past much greater than those we are witnessing today.
Such warming allowed vineyards to flourish in England in the Middle
Ages. Malaria affected northern Europe and cattle grazed in Viking
settlements in Greenland that were subsequently abandoned as the
"little ice age" took effect in the 14th century, lasting until the
19th. Any increase in global temperatures could therefore be the
result of a natural variation in the earth's climate, rather than the
effect of any human activity. Sceptics also attack the scientists
whose computer models predict dangerous levels of global warming.
Others contend that although global warming is happening, there is
little we can do about it and therefore we should concentrate our
efforts instead on more pressing issues, such as the HIV epidemic and
poverty. The champions of this view are the Copenhagen Consensus, a
group of economists led by Bjorn Lomborg, professor of political
science at Aarhus University in Denmark. He says: "We can only do very
little about global warming . . . If we spend a large amount of money
on global warming, we are taking away money that could be spent
elsewhere to do much more good."
In the US, the debate splits along broadly political lines -
Republicans tend to argue that anthropogenic climate change does not
exist or is not a problem, while Democrats take the opposing view. In
Europe, the faultlines are different, as climate change scepticism is
rarer. US political observers are often surprised by the support that
the UK's opposition Conservative party shows for policies tackling
climate change. American business organisations also tend to side with
the sceptics. Again, this is not the case in the UK, where the CBI
employer's organisation has welcomed government action on emissions
Climate change sceptics have substantial influence within the Bush
administration. Washington's official line is that it is taking steps
to tackle climate change - for instance, by spending more than $5bn
annually on research and new technology - but that more scientific
evidence is needed to discover whether climate change is in fact a
The US is funding the earth observation satellite system. Vice-Admiral
Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the US National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, says: "We will have more compatible
interpretations of the data [on climate change] than we have today."
This will feed into the "science-based climate change strategy" which
Mr Bush espouses. However, it is likely to take at least 10 years to
put the system in place.
Critics of this stance argue that is simply a stalling tactic, as one
can go on collecting scientific evidence indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the majority of scientific opinion asserts that global
warming as a man-made phenomenon is taking place, and does represent a
serious threat to the future way of life of large swathes of humanity.
If Mr Blair is serious about taking on climate change in 2005, he will
face a huge political challenge. His success or failure could make
this the decisive year for human action on climate change.
EU carbon trading a possible blueprint
Climate change will become a serious business issue for many European
companies from 1st January with the start of the European Union's
mandatory greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme on New Year's day.
For the first time, businesses in energy-intensive sectors will have
to monitor and lower their emissions of carbon dioxide or face large
fines. If successful, the scheme could provide the blueprint for
lowering emissions around the world.
The scheme aims to lower the EU's overall greenhouse gas emissions -in
line with member states' obligations under the Kyoto protocol - by
targeting the sectors judged to be the biggest emitters of carbon
dioxide and imposing limits on how much they are allowed to produce.
Each country must submit a national allocation plan that calculates
how much its affected industries should be allowed to emit under the
scheme. About 12,000 installations, responsible for nearly half of
Europe's overall emissions of carbon dioxide, will be given individual
Companies that reduce their carbon emissions, for instance by
increasing their energy efficiency or by installing "cleaner"
technology, will be able to sell their unused allowances on an open
market. Companies that exceed their quota will be able to buy extra
permits.Any company found to exceed its quota without valid permits
will be fined at a rate of ?40 ($54.60) a tonne.
The thinking behind the scheme is that the system should be flexible
enough to reward companies that reduce their emissions substantially
without unduly penalising those that require more time.
The cap on emissions will start relatively high but will be reduced
over time. "There must be scarcity [of carbon allowances] for this to
work," says Peter Vis, acting head of the industrial emissions unit at
the European Commission and one of the architects of the trading
The scheme applies only to industrial installations. Only six
categories of business are covered, at least in its first stage:
electricity generation; heat an d steam production; mineral oil
refineries; the production and processing of ferrous metals; the
manufacture of cement, bricks and ceramics; and the pulp and paper
The scheme will be reviewed by the European Commission in 2006, and
countries will have to submit their national allocation plans for the
second period then.
Future stages of the scheme, to come into effect from 2008, could
include sectors such as the manufacture of aluminium and the aviation
industry. However, the inclusion of the latter is controversial, as it
is difficult to calculate emissions for aircraft. After 2008, member
states can also decide whether to include other greenhouse gases such
as methane in the scheme.
Countries outside the EU can link up to the trading scheme in the
future. Canada and Japan are seen as the most likely to do so.
The scheme will rely on close monitoring of emissions. Companies'
carbon allowances will be overseen by a central administrator for the
Brokerages specialising in carbon trading have already begun trading
in carbon futures and in carbon financial instruments. The volume of
carbon being traded in this fashion has risen steadily throughout the
Emissions trading has already had some success in the US, where it has
been used to cut down pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur.
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