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Climate Panel Reaches Consensus on the Need to Reduce Harmful Emissions

By Andrew C. Revkin and Seth Mydans (The New York Times) - May 4, 2007

BANGKOK, May 4 — The world’s established and emerging powers will need to divert substantially from today’s main energy sources within a few decades, to limit centuries of rising temperatures and seas driven by the buildup of heat-trapping emissions in the air, the top body studying climate change has concluded.

In an all-night session capping four days of talks, economists, scientists, and government officials from more than 100 countries agreed in Bangkok early today on the last sections of a report outlining ways to limit such emissions, led by carbon dioxide, an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal and oil.

The final report, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said prompt slowing of emissions could set the stage later in the century for stabilization of the concentration of carbon dioxide. Now at about 380 parts per million, the concentration has risen by more than one-third since the start of the industrial revolution, and could easily double from pre-industrial level within decades.

The report concluded that significant progress could be made toward halting the increase in the next 25 years using known technologies and policy changes, setting the stage for what would have to be a century-long transition to energy sources that have no impact on the climate.

Several authors said its message was clear.

“We can no longer make the excuse that we need to wait for more science, or the excuse that we need to wait for more technologies and policy knowledge,” said Adil Najam, an author of one chapter and an associate professor of international negotiation at Tufts University. “To me,” he said, “the big message is that we now have both, and we do not need to wait any longer.”

Speaking to reporters at the close of the conference, the chairman of the climate-change panel, Rajendra K. Pachauri, said he hoped the report would spur governments to act.

“I don’t think you can ignore what the world is coming to understand as the implications of inaction,” he said.

The report also made clear the risks of delay, noting that emissions of greenhouse gases have risen 70 percent just since 1970, and could rise another 90 percent by 2030 if nothing is done.

Carbon dioxide is particularly important, not only because so much is produced each year — about 25 billion tons — but because much of it persists in the atmosphere, building like unpaid credit-card debt.

To stop the rise, the report’s authors said, countries would need to expand adoption of existing policies that can cut emissions — like a fuel tax or the binding limits set by the Kyoto Protocol — while also encouraging a shift to natural gas and other less-polluting fuels and stepping up the search for new large-scale energy options. This work would include pushing for advances in solar and nuclear power.

The meeting ended just after dawn today, with several authors of the report saying there had been relatively little last-minute fighting with government officials over details. Governments had the power to demand changes in some of the report’s language.

China, the United States, Saudi Arabia and some European countries had been tussling over various sections. Countries whose economic prospects are tied to fossil fuels were eager to play down language calling for swift moves away from such energy sources.

United States officials also complained that the report did not adequately describe the need for major advances in energy technology, no matter what is achieved in the short term by a carbon tax or cap.

Some European officials and scientists pressed the authors to amplify suggestions that the costs of aggressive emissions cuts would be modest.

Bill Hare, a Greenpeace adviser and a co-author of the report, said he was pleased with the way the delegations worked together to seek a consensus.

“Nearly everything was constructive, as were China, India, Brazil, as were the Eurpoean countries,” he said. “So in spite of the fact that China had some quite worrying positions, they showed a great deal of flexibility and courage in terms of putting aside those concerns that they had in order to achieve a better outcome for the whole.”

The report estimates that to bring global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 back down to levels measured in 2000 would cost about $50 to $100 for each ton of released carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to a tax of 50 cents to $1.00 on a gallon of gasoline.

The report projects that this shift might cause a small blunting of global economic activity, resulting in an overall reduction of perhaps one tenth of a percentage point each year through 2100 in the world’s total economic output, the authors said.

Some of the experts and government officials involved in the final discussions said in interviews and e-mail messages that the costs could be substantially greater than those estimates, adding that the report used some very rosy assumptions.

The economic studies cited in the report, for example, assumed that a universal international policy would be adopted, that capital would flow immediately into developing and disseminating new, cleaner technology, and that consumers will not resist change, according to several experts and officials involved with the climate panel.

Other experts said the report underplayed the importance of an aggressively intensified research quest to make alternatives to coal and oil much cheaper.

Richard Richels, an author of the report and an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, said a tax or cap on carbon dioxide emissions that was politically feasible would not be strict enough to propel research seeking big innovations.

“A carbon policy without an R. and D. policy is bankrupt,” he said.

In a telephone news conference today, one lead author of the climate report, Dennis Tirpak, said that sections of it did emphasize that point.

“We call attention to the fact that investments in R. and D. have gone down during the last few decades,” he said. “Ministers come together and they often say we’ve got to do more about R. and D., and they go home and they don’t do it.”

This is the third report this year from the climate panel, which was formed under the auspices of the United Nations in 1988 to brief nations periodically on the risks from human and natural changes in climate and on the options for limiting the danger.

In February, one team of experts concluded with near-certainty that most warming since 1950 has been driven by the rising concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

A second working group reported last month that the warming trend was already measurably shifting weather, water and ecological patterns, and that hundreds of millions of people faced risks by mid-century ranging from lost water supplies to inundated coasts if the trends persist.

The latest report focuses on strategies and costs for cutting emissions of the warming gases.

William Moomaw, a lead author of a chapter on energy options and a professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, said he sees evidence, both in the United States and overseas, that big cuts can happen.

He cited the actions by American states to require that utilities derive growing amounts of power from wind or other renewable sources, to rapid improvements in energy efficiency for new homes and large buildings, to Europe’s recent commitment to cutting emissions beyond existing targets, and to some promising statements from China about policy shifts.

“Here, in early years of the 21st century, we’re looking for an energy revolution that’s as comprehensive as the one that occurred at beginning of the 20th century, when we went from gaslight and horse-drawn carriages to light bulbs and automobiles,” Dr. Moomaw said. “In 1905, only 3 percent of homes had electricity. Right now, 3 percent is about the same range as the amount of renewable energy we have today. None of us can predict the future, any more than we could in 1905, but that suggests to me it may not be impossible to make that kind of revolution again.”

European officials have said the climate panel’s reports will be stressed when climate policy comes up at the next meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized powers, which takes place next month.

The panel’s report on emissions options is also expected to play a role in shaping the next round of talks seeking new binding emissions restrictions after those set under the Kyoto treaty end in 2012. Those talks are scheduled to take place in Bali in December.