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  Geotimes - July 2007 - Affording the costs of climate change

Science and society
Affording the costs of climate change

Taking immediate action to try to mitigate climate change is not only necessary, it is affordable, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released its third summary report on May 4 in Bangkok, Thailand. Without such efforts, global greenhouse gas emissions will rise 25 to 90 percent in the next 25 years, the report states. By spending fractions of a percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) to stem greenhouse gas emissions, however, the planet can stave off the direst of future warming scenarios.

Unlike the previous two summary reports, released in February and April this year, which focused on the science and observations of current changes, the authors of this report focused on mitigation — the scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of stemming greenhouse gas emissions — to stabilize global greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, May 4, 2007). The largest emissions growth has been from the energy sector, especially from transport and industry. But, the researchers wrote, those are also the best sectors in which to make significant changes immediately, as much of the technology is already available.

“The fastest gains are going to be seen from behavioral changes: Efficiency and conservation can save a lot of energy immediately,” says Michael Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Some places to start, he says, include increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles and making buildings “greener” by reducing heating and lighting needs. The report also calls for expanding usage of renewable fuels, such as biofuels, and alternative energy sources, including wind, solar and nuclear power. And, as the report suggests, “huge gains can be made in the agricultural sector,” Webber says. Standard farming practices in the developed world emit a lot of methane and nitrogen oxides, he says, which are far worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. “We are going to have to go from our business-as-usual development to more sustainable development,” he says.

The underlying point is that “there is no silver bullet” to slow emissions growth, Harlan Watson, the U.S. senior climate negotiator at the IPCC meetings, said at a press conference May 4. The best way to reduce growth in emissions is through a broad portfolio of options across many sectors, he and the researchers involved in the report said.

The most aggressive scenarios — keeping future emissions concentrations to only slightly above today’s level, and preventing temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than today — may cost upwards of 3 percent of the global GDP, or roughly $1.8 trillion, according to the report. Laxer scenarios, which call for stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at levels that would only allow a temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit), may only cost the world about 0.2 percent of global GDP.

Mitigation measures, like greater efficiency, can come at relatively little economic cost, said Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Center for Environmental Quality, at the press conference. “As policymakers, we have to be concerned about the real-world impacts [of any measures],” he says. A 3 percent GDP cost would cause a global recession, he says, and “no leader in the world will pursue a strategy that would drive their economies into a deep recession.”

Economic growth may occur along with mitigation strategies, however. Denmark and California have instituted “very green policies” and have seen “tremendous economic growth,” Webber says. “So the argument that [even the most aggressive scenarios] would cost too much or drain our economy doesn’t make much sense.” Ultimately, the global marketplace will determine what changes can be made to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures, Webber says. “This process has to be kick-started by rational national policies that will set the markets,” he says, “but then we have to let the smart, innovative businesses sort it out.”

Megan Sever

"IPCC says climate change mitigation is affordable," Geotimes online, Web Extra, May 4, 2007

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