Worldwide Strategy Proposed to Slow Global Warming

6:00 P.M. ED
Saturday, October 14, 1989


Only a fundamental restructuring of the world energy economy can prevent catastrophic climate change in the next century, according to a new study from the Worldwatch Institute. Global emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, will eventually have to be cut by more than half--reversing trends that have dominated the industrial age.

The planet can be kept livable, but only if societies move rapidly to highly efficient energy systems run largely on renewable resources, according to the report, Slowing Global Warming: A Worldwide Strategy.

Industrial countries that have caused most of the buildup in greenhouse gases will have to take the lead in reversing it, said Christopher Flavin, author of the study and Vice-President of the Washington-based research organization. The United States, in particular, has a unique potential to ignite a global effort to slow climate change.

"Humanity now faces perhaps its most significant challenge ever--acting as a common community to stave off a major threat to the earth's habitability. Slowing global warming will shape almost every aspect of the economy as well as our political institutions."



Some change in the climate is already unavoidable, according to the Worldwatch report. "Rising global average temperatures--now about 0.6 degrees Celsius warmer than they were a century ago--cannot as yet be conclusively linked to the greenhouse effect. But the temperature increase that atmospheric models project for coming decades is more than 10 times as rapid as that experienced during the past century."

Such a warming would cause immense damage to natural systems that sustain the world economy. Droughts could plague the U.S. corn belt and major grain growing regions of central Asia., threatening global food security. The greenhouse effect could also cause more violent storms, destroy ecosystems as climate zones shift, and threaten low-lying areas as the sea level rises.

Carbon dioxide is responsible for 57 percent of the added greenhouse effect during the eighties, according to the study. Over 5.6 billion tons of carbon were released from fossil fuel combustion in 1988 (supplying fourfifths of world energy), and emissions are rising at 3 percent annually. Another 1-2 billion tons are added from deforestation.

"Scientists estimate that carbon emissions will eventually have to be cut to less than 2 billion tons to stabilize the atmosphere, but the world is now on course for emissions to exceed 10 billion tons by soon after the turn of the century," the author said.

"Moving the world away from fossil fuels is essential, for they also release two other greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. In fact, global warming has emerged as the most important limit facing the world's energy system: if fossil fuel use continues to grow, the earth will become uninhabitable long before reserves are exhausted.

"A plan to improve energy efficiency is the essential centerpiece of any workable strategy to limit production of energy-related greenhouse gases," Flavin -more


said. "Overall, energy efficiency improvements between 1990 and 2010 could make a 3-billion-ton difference in the annual amount of carbon dioxide being released to the atmosphere. The efficiency of lighting, transportation, appliances, and industry can each be doubled during the next two decades."

Meanwhile, a transition is needed to clean renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Many of these technologies have already reached the market and are competitive with conventional power plants. Some renewable energy sources can already displace carbon emissions more costeffectively than can nuclear power or so-called clean coal technologies.

"If global warming is to be kept to a reasonable level," Flavin said, "by the middle of the next century the world will have to rely primarily on renewable resources. For such a profound transition to succeed, it will have to start immediately and extend over several decades--something that will require strong government backing."

So far, legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions has bogged down in the United States, the leading consumer of fossil fuels. However, Norway and Sweden have committed to a freeze in emissions, and the Netherlands is debating a plan to reduce them by 8 percent in the next four years.

A comprehensive strategy would also include reversing the destruction of the world's tropical forests, and eventually achieving net reforestation on a worldwide basis. The elimination of CFCs before the turn of the century is another clear priority in the global warming fight.

"The time has arrived for an international global warming agreement-
one that
is comprehensive, detailed, and prescriptive. Such an agreement will need
include specific emissions reductions, as well as a mechanism to channel
into energy efficiency and reforestation in developing countries, stanching
hemorrhage of funds from today's massive debts.
"If 10 percent of the revenues from a carbon tax of $50 per ton were put into a 'Global Atmosphere Fund,' $28 billion could be made available for the Third World each year, about 3 percent of the current world military budget." A global warming agreement will also have to allow for the need to cut emissions most rapidly in the countries now emitting the most carbon, while allowing leeway for Third World development.

The study establishes targets linked to current per capita carbon emissions. In the United States and the Soviet Union, with annual emissions over 3 tons per person, total emissions-would be cut 3 percent each year. In countries such as Japan, with emissions of 2 tons per person, they would decline at a 1-percent rate. But in a country such as India, with carbon emissions of less than 0.5 tons per person, they would be permitted to increase.

Together, these goals lead to a 12 percent cut in global carbon emissions by the year 2000--or 38 percent less than if society follows the current path. While the global atmosphere cannot be stabilized by the year 2000, this program would put the world on course to do so in later decades.

"The benefits of such an effort are manifold, extending well beyond the stabilization of the climate. Economies would be strengthened, new industries created, air pollution reduced, and forests preserved. Ultimately, however, societies will need to reshape transportation systems, cities, and even lifestyles if the climate is to be stabilized.

"For humanity as a whole, a successful effort to protect the
atmosphere would
be a major evolutionary step, demonstrating the ability to work together as
a world
community--an auspicious beginning to a new millennium."
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