Rhein on Energy and Climate

2010 will be the hottest year registered since 1880.

These are the provisional conclusions drawn by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the basis of the data available for the first semester, including the meltdown of Arctic and glacier ice.

Nobody can any longer dispute the long-term trend of global warming. The 10 warmest years have all been registered in the last 15 years.

And very few people contest the fact this trend is essentially caused by human activity, in particular the ever rising emissions of carbon dioxide through burning fossil energy, slashing tropical forests and the dangerous emissions of methane caused the increase of the cattle and sheep population.

Judging from the number of international meetings and declarations the international community has become well aware of the dangers of global warming for the sustainability of the global eco-system and the survival of Humanity in decent living conditions. It has repeatedly fixed two centigrade as the ceiling beyond which global temperatures must not be allowed to rise.

By 2010 we have already reached one third (0.7 centigrade) of that tolerable ceiling, and because of the cumulative effect of already stored plus additional C02 emissions the trend towards higher temperatures is bound to accelerate in the course of the 21st century.

But the step from awareness to effective action to combat global warming is huge. Humanity has lost half a century without doing anything.

As early as 17th September 1969, Patrick Moynihan had drawn the attention of the White House to the looming dangers from the increasing consumption of fossil fuels for the concentration of C02 in the atmosphere, rising temperatures and sea levels, and suggested NATO to take care of what he saw as an emerging security issue. But Germany refused to consider such an option!

And it is almost 20 years that the international community has signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. (UNFCCC), which has become the basic international policy document for tackling climate change.

During the last 50 years, world population has grown by some 3 billion people, each of whom a consumer of rising quantities of fossil energy. China and other emerging countries have succeeded in lifting some three billion people out of poverty and proudly converting them into bigger consumers of fossil energy. And, last not least, the USA has pursued its reckless course of wasteful energy consumption, leading to soaring C02 emissions.

The global political and business elites consider the fight against climate change as absolutely secondary. It does not help them to stay in power. Their citizens, whether in China or US, expect continuous improvements of their living conditions today and do not care about the fate of human beings 50 years ahead. Business elites resist effective measures, fearing their impact on costs of production and competitiveness.

This is the dilemma facing climate policy: short-term egoistic thinking of the political and business elites, ignorance or indifference of the masses and unwillingness or inability of the few who understand the long-term risks to take the necessary action.

The results are well known. Diplomats gather in endless international conferences, pretending to align the international community on emission targets, while above all diverting the responsibility to other players and shunning their own responsibility.

There are only two ways out of this dilemma:

Laisser- faire;

Preventive action by the few key global actors.

If Humanity continues to ignore climate change as it has done during the past 50 years market forces will step in and impose the necessary changes on energy production and consumption: The price of oil, gas and coal will rise substantially, though by leaps rather than smoothly. In the wake of higher fossil energy price, consumption of fossil energy will become more expensive and induce citizens/business to enhance energy efficiency and switch to alternative technologies.

But physical bottlenecks and rising prices for alternative technologies may delay the necessary transition towards a low-emission energy system by one or two decades. This will be precious time lost in the fight against global warming.

That is why all climate experts insist on the urgency of preventive action. Humanity will pay dearly for every year it delays action against climate change.

Mss. Hu, Obama, including the Senate and House leaders, and Van Rompuy, representing the main emitter nations, should be able to fully understand the climate constraints. They do have the power to act and commit their countries to a coherent strategy of preventive action.

Jointly, they are able to either preserve or ruin the world as we have known it. And jointly they should also be able to agree on the most appropriate and effective strategies.

The EU has the easiest part to play: it has an emission target for 2050 and a strategy grossly consistent with the planet’s needs.

The USA has a similar target and important elements of a strategy, agreed so far only by one half of the Congress.

China constitutes the loose end. It continues to give utmost priority to ultra-rapid growth and has therefore not yet accepted the need to stabilise its emissions by 2020 and reduce them by at least 50 percent until 2050. It has the technical means to do so, but refuses to make fossil energy substantially more expensive, whether by introducing C02 taxes or a cap and trade system. It deceives the international community by over-stating its – impressive – efforts to develop hydro, nuclear, wind and solar power. It needs a friendly, but serious wake-up call.

The “Big Three” should get together for an intimate but frank debate on how to confront the looming dangers and the respective roles to be played by each of them and the international community.

The EU should offer to host such a meeting. It is best suited for this role, as long as USA and China are at logger heads on who should act first and more decisively. But it needs to define clear ideas of what to expect from either party; and it should be ready to “intermediate” and lead!

Such a meeting will need many months of discreet and intensive preparation.

Ahead of the meeting, the EU should have adopted a decision for a 30 percent lowering of its missions by 2020, without, however, formalising it.

The US Congress should also have agreed on a stringent climate bill, thus setting the stage for engaging China into very serious discussion.

The Cancun Climate Conference should be over without a breakthrough on more ambitious emission targets and policies.

The spring of 2011 would appear to be the ideal timing. Hopefully, the consequences of the global financial crisis should be out of the way by then; the fears of another recession allayed and no international political crisis pre-empting political attention.

Brussels 23.07.2010 Eberhard Rhein

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