Pressure on Climate Negotiatiors Heats Up

6:00 PM EST
Saturday, June 22, 1996


As climate negotiators gather in Geneva next month, they will face growing pressure to slow the pace of global climate change, says a new report from the Worldwatch Institute. Most scientists believe that human activities are already shaping climate trends. More disturbingly, these climatic shifts may soon affect the global economy.

  • Weather extremes have reduced the harvests of China and the United States twice in the early 1990s, contributing to the depletion of global grain reserves and driving up prices.
  • Worldwide weather-related disaster losses reached $162 billion for the period 1990-1995, compared to $54 billion for the entire decade of the eighties.
Although these losses are not yet definitively linked to climate change, they demonstrate human vulnerability to even minor climatic shifts and have sparked the emergence of new political and economic coalitions favoring action to stabilize the climate, say Christopher Flavin and Odil Tunali, authors of Climate of Hope: New Strategies for Stabilizing the World's Atmosphere.

Island nations whose property values and very existence are threatened by rising seas, and insurance companies concerned that storm-related losses could bankrupt them, are calling on governments to take prompt action to slow climate change.

"Stabilizing the climate will require overhauling our energy and transportation systems--an end to the fossil fuel economy as we now know it," says the Worldwatch report. But it notes optimistically that "recent innovations hold promise for the rapid development of an economical, low- carbon energy system based on many of the decentralized electronic technologies that are reshaping communications, entertainment, and medicine."

"Worldwide carbon emissions, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and global average temperatures all reached record highs last year," according to the new study. "All ten of the warmest years since record keeping began 130 years ago have occurred since 1980."

Local and regional weather patterns seem to confirm the broader trend. The National Climatic Data Center reports that the U.S. has experienced more extreme weather events in recent years; the rapid warming of Antarctica has led to the disintegration of five major ice shelves; and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are rapidly spreading into temperate regions.

Rapid increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, combined with a leveling off or decline in sulfate aerosols--which tend to offset the warming effects of greenhouse gases--may lead to disruptive and unpredictable changes in local weather patterns during the next decade, the study suggests. Floods, droughts, fires, and heat outbreaks will likely become more frequent as temperatures rise.

At a time when the world is adding 87 million people each year, and suffering unprecedented loss of forests, we are not well positioned to cope with such disruptions. Chronic water shortages already plague 80 countries; hotter, drier weather conditions could undermine a precarious global food balance.

Industries that are especially vulnerable to climate change include fishing, forest products, and insurance. After losing $57 billion in weather-related claims between 1990 and 1995, compared to $17 billion for the preceding decade, some insurance companies concluded that increased weather extremes could be devastating. Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, sums up the threat: "The insurance industry is first in line to be affected by climate could bankrupt the industry."

New technologies can improve energy efficiency, and allow energy needs to be met by harnessing sunlight and wind. The study notes that the world market for solar cells has nearly doubled since 1990, while that for wind turbines has expanded sixfold. Mass production and falling costs have made some of these carbon-free energy systems less expensive than ones based on fossil fuels.

"Just as the effort to replace horsepower with steam engines at the end of the last century drove economic growth, so can the shift to an efficient, low- carbon energy system revitalize the global economy in the early part of the next century," says the new study.

Such innovations are badly needed according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500 scientists that advises climate treaty members. It concluded in late 1995 that a drastic reduction in fossil fuel use will be needed in the next few decades in order to meet the treaty's goal of preventing "dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system."

"Four years after the climate convention was signed in Rio de Janeiro, the world is a long way from meeting this objective," say Flavin and Tunali. "Between 1990 and 1995, annual fossil-fuel-related emissions of carbon, which produce carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, rose by 113 million tons, exceeding 6 billion tons in 1995. Emissions would have risen an additional 400-500 million tons if not for the economic collapse of central and eastern Europe, which temporarily drove down emissions in that region."

Under the climate convention, the 35 industrial countries that contribute most heavily to climate change are committed to holding their emissions of greenhouse gases at or below the 1990 level in 2000. Only half these nations appear to be making the target, according to the Worldwatch assessment.

The best records so far in reducing emissions are found in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The worst records are found in Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Developing countries' greenhouse gas emissions are still rising rapidly, driven by demand for transportation, refrigeration, lighting, and other modern amenities, say Flavin and Tunali. China's carbon emissions rose 13 percent between 1990 and 1994; Brazil's 16 percent, India's 24 percent, and South Korea's 44 percent. Growth in energy demand, which had been restrained by high oil prices, foreign debt, and economic stagnation, is now surging. These trends are projected to push global emissions up in the late 1990s.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change has so far had little effect on these emission trends according to the Worldwatch report. Treaty members responded by adopting the Berlin Mandate in 1995, which charges negotiators with developing a treaty protocol aimed at setting new emissions targets as well as establishing the policies needed to achieve them.

The second Conference of the Parties to the Convention in Geneva next month is to focus on negotiating that protocol, which is to be adopted at the third Conference of the Parties in 1997. Continuing disagreements among key countries suggest that the sessions in Geneva may be contentious.

The Worldwatch researchers recommend adoption of stronger emission targets. Industrial countries have the moral responsibility, financial resources, and technologies to slow climate change, and should lead the way. However, despite the fact that developing countries' greenhouse gas emissions are often less than one-tenth as great, they would likely benefit from efforts to upgrade their outdated, inefficient energy systems--a chance to leap directly to the energy technologies of the twenty-first century.

The Worldwatch report suggests that the next round of greenhouse gas targets be differentiated among countries to reflect the wide variance in current emissions levels. The researchers go on to recommend offsetting reduced income taxes with taxes on carbon emissions, experimental emissions trading between countries at similar levels of economic development, and a range of more targeted policies, such as tighter automobile and appliance efficiency standards. "Countries should be encouraged to try a range of ambitious climate policies so as to figure out which ones work best."

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