Monday, 29 October 2007

Umming and arring over Green stuff.

I have been thinking about rejoining the Greens. However, I read this article by Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known Danish "sceptical environmentalist" and my doubts return. It could well be the case that humanity has passed the point of no return, but if we haven't...?? Perhaps the onset of global warming is to green thought what the collapse of the global capitalism is to socialist thought. It can happen, and perhaps it will, but is it inevitable? What if it doesn't happen?

I procrastinate. I shop at supermarkets, fly aeroplanes and eat meat. I don't want to be a fraud and a hypocrite in the politics I advocate. I wish I had proper answers to all this. Anyway, here's BL's piece..

Sucked dry: While we're misled on the effects of climate change, costly plans to cut emissions are hampering cheaper, effective solutions to problems we face now
Bjorn Lomborg, The Guardian,Wednesday October 17 2007

Nets and medication would have a bigger, faster impact on malaria than implementing the Kyoto protocol for the rest of this century.

We hear a lot from people who argue that we are heading for catastrophe. We also hear from those who maintain climate change is a hoax. Neither of these extremes is right. The Earth is warming, and we are causing it, but that is not the whole story. Predictions of impending disaster don't stack up.

We have become fixated on solving climate change through cuts in carbon emissions and, as a result, we are losing sight of the real problem, ignoring more effective solutions.

The climate models show that the Kyoto protocol would have postponed the effects of global warming by seven days by the end of the century. Even if the US and Australia had signed on and everyone stuck to Kyoto for this entire century, we would postpone the effects of global warming by only five years.

Although there are no certain predictions of climate change's effects, I believe it is best to employ the most widely accepted estimates - those created by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC finds that ocean levels will rise between 0.5ft and 2ft over this century, with the best expectation being about 1ft. That's similar to what the world experienced in the last 150 years.

A 1ft rise in sea level isn't a catastrophe, though it will pose a problem, particularly for small island nations. But very little land was lost when sea levels rose last century, and it costs relatively little to protect the land from rising tides. We can drain wetlands, build levees and divert waterways.

Some individuals and environmental organisations scoff that the IPCC has severely underestimated the melting of glaciers, especially in Greenland. But delegations tend to fly first to the Kangerlussuaq glacier, then change planes to fly to the fastest-moving glacier, Ilulissat, where they declare that they see climate change unfolding before their eyes. They don't stay in Kangerlussuaq, where the glacier is growing, and they don't mention that temperatures in Greenland were higher in 1941 than today.

There are other ways we only hear one side of the story. We are told climate change will cause more heatwaves and therefore more heat-related deaths. That is true. But rising temperatures will also reduce the number of cold spells. This is important because the cold is a much bigger killer than the heat. Globally, it's estimated that by 2050, global warming will cause almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths each year, but 1.8 million fewer people will die from cold.

Drastic cuts

The Kyoto protocol, with its drastic emissions cuts, is not a sensible way to stop people from dying in future heatwaves. If the US and Australia had committed to the pact, it would have set us all back by $180bn each year. At a much lower cost, urban designers and politicians could lower temperatures more effectively by planting trees, adding water features and reducing the amount of asphalt in at-risk cities. Estimates show that this could reduce the peak temperatures in cities by more than 10C.

We also hear a lot about how global warming will increase infectious diseases. It is true that higher temperatures will probably cause about 3% more malaria by the end of the century. But, according to scientific models, implementing the Kyoto protocol for the rest of this century would reduce the malaria risk by just 0.2%.

On the other hand, we could spend $3bn annually - 2% of the protocol's cost - on mosquito nets and medication and cut malaria incidence almost in half within a decade. For every dollar we spend saving one person through climate policies, we could save 36,000 through direct intervention.

Since awareness of global warming started rising, it seems nearly every "extreme weather event" has been blamed on the changing climate. Flooding is probably weakly related to global warming. We should expect more precipitation, but increasing rain does not necessarily increase flooding. Rises happen mostly during autumn when there is generally a much lower flow and little risk of flooding, and rarely in spring, with high flows.

Using the Kyoto protocol, at best we can postpone warming - and flood damage - by five years by the end of the century.

We have other options. We could limit or reduce people and wealth on floodplains, although this would be politically hard. We could inform people better about flood risks, cancel public subsidies to settlements in floodplains, have more stringent public planning, use levees more sparingly, and allow some floodplains to provide buffers for the remaining areas. We could return some areas back to wetlands, which would both decrease flooding and improve environmental quality.

For every pound of UK flood damage we would save through climate change policies, the same resources spent on direct flood policies could save £1,300. If we care about the future victims of flooding, shouldn't we choose to use flood policies first?

Wherever you look, the conclusion is the same: reducing carbon emissions is not the best way to help the world. We do need to fix global warming in the long run. But I'm frustrated at our blinkered focus on policies that won't achieve it.

I think we need to find a smarter way than spending enormous sums of money doing very little good for the planet a hundred years from now.

Focusing resources

The first step is to start focusing our resources on making carbon emissions cuts much easier. The typical cost of cutting a tonne of CO2 is about $20. Yet, according to a wealth of scientific literature, the damage from a tonne of carbon in the atmosphere is about $2. We need to reduce the cost of cutting emissions from $20 a tonne to, say, $2.

The way to achieve this is to dramatically increase spending on research and development of low-carbon energy. Ideally, every nation should commit to spending 0.05% of its gross domestic production exploring non-carbon-emitting energy technologies - be they wind, wave or solar power - or capturing CO2 emissions from power plants. This spending could add up to about $25bn a year, but it would still be seven times cheaper than the Kyoto protocol, yet increase global research and development tenfold. All nations would be involved, but the richer ones would pay the larger share.

Climate change is not the only challenge of the 21st century, and for many other global problems we have low-cost, durable solutions. I formed the Copenhagen Consensus in 2004 so some of the world's top economists could come together to ask not only where we can do good but at what cost, and to rank the best things for the world to do first. The top priorities are dealing with infectious diseases, malnutrition, agricultural research, and first-world access to third-word agriculture. For less than a fifth of Kyoto's price tag, we could tackle all these issues.

Obviously, we should also work on a long-term solution to climate change. If we invest in research and development, we'll do some real good in the long run, rather than just making ourselves feel good today. But embracing the best response to global warming is difficult when sensible dialogue is shut out. So first, we need to cool our debate.

Bjorn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, is the author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, published by Marshall Cavendish/Cyan (£19.99). To order a copy for £18.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875

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