LONDON — The global-warming conference in the Netherlands last month ended without agreement. Some scientists are still debating how real global warming is and how serious its effects are likely to be. Others are still inclined to argue that climates evolve naturally with warm and cold periods alternating. They note that in medieval times there were as many vineyards in Britain as there are now, but a period that began in the late 17th century was cold enough to make the Thames freeze solid.
The evidence from past history is inconclusive partly for lack of accurate records, but there is no doubt that the world has been suffering recently from extreme weather patterns. Here in Britain we have had the wettest autumn since reliable records began to be kept over 200 years ago. This has led to widespread flooding, casualties and damage. We cannot be sure that this is all due to global warming, but we would be foolish to dismiss the evidence that the icecaps are decreasing in size and the fact that this is likely to lead to a rise in sea levels.
This could be serious for some coastal areas in Britain and, of course, for the Netherlands. In the Pacific, it could even lead to the disappearance of some low-lying island countries. It behooves us all to take account of the interests of such areas and to try to reduce the emissions that have apparently led to global warming.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol ensured that the dangers of global warming were generally accepted and that responsible countries would get together to agree on appropriate countermeasures. The problems lie in how improvements designed to reduce emissions that lead to global warming can best be achieved, taking into account the differing interests of the various countries involved and minimizing the economic disruptions which effective action is likely to entail.
The developed countries consume much larger amounts of energy and hence produce more emissions than developing countries. The developed countries also have significantly greater resources to pay for investments that would reduce damaging emissions. But industries in developed countries argue that the economic costs of such measures greatly outweigh the likely benefits to the world in general.
The Americans in particular want to be permitted to use high amounts of energy in ways that many other countries consider wasteful. They want to invest in forests, which are considered to be carbon sinks, and to count agricultural land against their emission quotas. They also want to be able to trade emissions, allowing them to buy emission quotas from other industries and countries. The quarrel at the global-warming conference seems to have focused primarily on how far the Americans could go in setting off their emissions against investment in carbon sinks, e.g., in the Amazon and in trading emissions.
The conference did not focus on the long-term measures needed to conserve carbon fuels and develop alternative sources of energy. Nor did it develop the arguments about the extent to which the present generation should make economic sacrifices for the sake of future generations. Should we accept slower economic growth and inconvenience now for a future we cannot foresee? Someone who lives in relative ease in the developed world should be able to reply in the affirmative, but would a poor farmer in India be willing or wise to sacrifice an immediate improvement in his standard of living to be achieved through the use of a highly polluting tractor in favor of waiting for a more expensive model that would pollute less but whose use he may never be able to afford? The answer is likely to be no.
All forms of energy involve some environmental damage, but some types are much more injurious than others. Coal burning is almost certainly the most polluting followed by oil in various forms. Natural gas is less damaging to the environment. But all these forms of energy depend on finite and largely irreplaceable resources. Nuclear energy is considerably less damaging to the environment and reprocessing of uranium makes nuclear energy self-sustaining, but the dangers of nuclear accidents and spillages, which could have disastrous effects, make nuclear-power plants increasingly unacceptable to communities where they are located.
Hydroelectric power involves the building of dams that can destroy whole communities. Dams can cause catastrophes. Harnessing tidal power is difficult and expensive. Windmills can destroy scenery and at sea can obstruct seaways. Perhaps solar energy is the best source of clean energy.
I hope that at the next meeting on implementing the Kyoto Protocol, participants give priority to the the development of nonpolluting and renewable sources of energy.
The hybrid car is now a reality and costs should decline in due course. Energy use can be greatly reduced by better insulation and improvements in building design. We owe it to future generations to reduce the depletion of the earth’s carbon resources. These can no doubt be made to last most of the lifetimes of those alive today, but what will the position be in the 22nd and 23rd centuries?
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.