A load of hot air
By Bjorn Lomborg
Full implementation of the Kyoto agreement would have cost the world e160bn a year in lost GDP growth, with a temperature reduction of just 0.004C.
THE UN green summit in Rio de Janeiro is in trouble — and with good reason. The planners of the mammoth event have been unable to agree on just what to say in the outcome document, ironically called: “The Future We Want.”
Finding common ground won’t be easy. Over the past four decades, the UN’s concern for “green” issues has moved closer to the fashionable concerns of rich Westerners and away from the legitimate concerns of the overwhelming majority of Earth’s people.
It wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, the first UN environmental conference in Stockholm helped to crystallise the global need for sound environmental policy. Over the next 20 years, however, the emphasis became much more driven by Western concerns. Whereas Stockholm had been a conference on the “human environment”, the theme of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was “environment and development” — and development took the back seat.
This summer, 20 years further on, dignitaries from around the world are again heading for Rio, and development has almost entirely slid off the negotiating table. While paying lip service to goals such as poverty eradication, Rio+20 (as the gathering is known in UN parlance) will focus on “sustainability”.
It’s a word that used to be about human needs. The classic UN definition, published in the world body’s 1987 Brundtland report, put it this way: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But today the term is code for global warming and similar concerns. In a remarkably honest Reuters interview, Brazil’s chief Rio+20 negotiator, ambassador Andrea Correa do Lago, says the summit’s “sustainable” branding is deliberate: “Sustainable development is an easier sell globally than climate change, even though sustainable development is a way of tackling global warming and other environmental issues.”
Global warming is real. Burning fossil fuels produces CO2, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet. The consequences of this can be either positive or negative, depending on where you live. It will result in more deaths from excessive heat, but fewer caused by cold. In Canada, Denmark, and Russia, moderate global warming is likely to be an overall improvement, whereas in the tropics even a small temperature rise will probably be negative. Toward the end of this century, the overall impact will be mostly negative.
The trouble is that almost every aspect of modern civilisation is powered by fossil fuels. How can we expect the world to give them up without a cheaper alternative? Consider the 1992 Rio summit’s biggest outcome: The Framework Convention on Climate Change, which led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Rio approach to global warming was typical UN: Let’s negotiate a treaty with aspirational language and see if it might solve an intractable problem.
Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t.
The Kyoto Protocol basically asked developed nations to cut CO2 emissions, either by reducing energy consumption or by using more expensive, greener energy. Economic models show that a full implementation of the Kyoto agreement would have cost the world an estimated €160bn a year in lost GDP growth. Yet the benefit would be an immeasurable temperature reduction of just 0.004C (0.008 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
Predictably, most countries either rejected the treaty or made changes that were barely noticeable. The abatement in CO2 emissions has been minuscule. Even the EU, the treaty’s most enthusiastic supporter, has simply shifted much of its industrial production (and the resulting greenhouse-gas generation) to countries not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, such as China.
Nevertheless, the UN approach has remained the same ever since, through the catastrophic 2009 Copenhagen meeting and last year’s meaningless follow-up gathering in Durban, South Africa. The same aspirational language will be rehashed in Rio.
We hear plenty of hype about climate-change “solutions”, such as solar panels and biofuels, but these technologies are not yet the answer. As long as wind turbines and solar panels remain more expensive than fossil fuels while working only intermittently, they will never contribute much to energy supply. Germany, the world’s largest per capita consumer of solar energy, produces just 0.3% of its energy this way. To achieve this No 1 status, the country has paid €110bn for €10bn worth of energy. The net reduction in CO2 emissions will slow the pace of global warming just 23 hours by the end of the century.
Similarly, biofuel production is consuming 40% of the US corn harvest, even though it supplies only 4% of the transport fuel used in America. Around the world, the turn to biofuel crops is resulting in higher food prices and, hence, increased hunger. And as farmers expand their agricultural land, they cut down more forests, which perversely could lead to an overall increase in CO2 emissions.
To solve global warming, we need to concentrate on innovating cheaper green technology through a massive increase in R&D. We will get nowhere until we make green energy cheaper than fossil fuels.
Perhaps more important, what really matters to most people is not global warming and other problems on the Rio+20 agenda. There is a deep and disturbing disconnect between the mighty who walk the plush carpets in the UN arena and what the majority of the world’s inhabitants need. While we mull green initiatives, about 900m people remain malnourished, 1bn lack clean drinking water, 2.6bn lack adequate sanitation, and 1.6bn are living without electricity. Every year roughly 15m deaths — one quarter of the world’s total — are caused by diseases that are easily and cheaply curable.
What are the three most important environmental issues in developing nations? Most people in rich countries get the answer wrong, even with repeated tries. Global warming is not among them, not even if we look at all the deaths caused by flooding, droughts, heat waves, and storms. Since early in the 20th century, death rates from these causes have dropped 97% or more. Today, about 0.06% of all deaths in the developing world are the result of such extreme weather.
Instead, one of the biggest environmental killers in the developing world is a problem unfamiliar to most people in rich countries: Indoor air pollution. About 3bn people in developing nations have no choice but to use fuels like cardboard or dung to cook their food and try to warm their homes.
The annual death toll from breathing the smoke of these fires is at least 1.4m — probably closer to 2m — and most victims are women and children. When you fuel your cooking fires with crop residues and wood, your indoor air quality can be 10 times worse than the air outside, even in the most polluted Third World cities. Not that you’re safe when you leave the house: Outdoor air pollution is estimated to kill another 1m people a year in the developing nations. Almost 7% of all deaths in the developing world come from air pollution. The figure is more than 100 times the toll from floods, droughts, heat waves, and storms.
The second problem is the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. About 7% of all deaths in the developing world are associated with a lack of clean drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. That’s almost 3m deaths each year.
The third big environmental problem is poverty. To the more than 1bn people subsisting on less than $1.25 (98c) a day, worrying about environmental issues is a distant luxury. If your family is freezing, you will cut down the last tree for fuel; if they are starving, you will strip the land bare to feed them. And if you have no certainty about the future, you will provide for it in the only way possible: By having more children to care for you in your old age, regardless of how much they will add to humanity’s demands on the planet.
Poverty means entire disadvantaged communities have less to eat, get less education, and are more exposed to infectious disease. Recent history suggests that when living standards go up, societies reduce their pollution, stop cutting down forests, and stop dying from dirty air and bad water. In short, helping people to emerge from poverty is one of the best things we can do for the environment.
Yet, the emphasis in Rio will be on creating a new “green economy”. The summit’s organisers asked one of its biggest boosters, the New Economic Foundation, to explain what this buzzword actually means. The British thinktank’s answer? “Don’t start from a growth perspective.” Instead, we’re told people need “reduced overall consumption”, and Japan is commended for experiencing virtually no growth since the 1990s. Poor countries should pursue a “revitalisation of rural economies, taking advantage of the synergies arising from consumption patterns at low-income levels” — in other words, they should be content with their poverty. In a report on “green jobs” published last year by the International Labor Organization, the UN itself declared the world’s current economic model a failure: “The model of growth and development pursued in the last decades has not delivered the inclusive growth and sustainable development aspired to by people around the world.”
Let’s pause and consider the latest figures on global absolute poverty, which came out this year. Contrary to the UN’s dire assessment, humanity has never seen a clearer reduction in poverty worldwide. The proportion of people living in absolute poverty has dropped from 52% in 1981 to 22% today.
With the current economic model, the UN’s own climate panel is forecasting an extreme reduction of poverty worldwide over the coming century: Per capita income in what we now call the developing world is projected to soar to over 23 times the 2000 level by 2100. So how can the UN argue that such economic growth needs to be overturned and replaced with a “complete transformation of technology on which human economic activity is based”?
Look at China. It wasn’t by going green that China’s leaders pulled 600m out of poverty in the past three decades. They did it by enormous polluting, but overwhelmingly successful GDP growth. They did it through large-scale international trade.
Despite what you might imagine (Beijing also plays the West’s green charade), China gets just 1/20th of 1% of its energy from wind, and one half of 1/1,000th of 1% of its energy from solar panels.
China’s leaders know — as do those in the West, despite their rhetoric — that wealth doesn’t come from subsidising inefficient technologies, and that jobs aren’t created by taxing the rest of the economy to pay for uneconomic green jobs. They know that what matters is participating in an international economy. Economic studies show that a successful Doha round of the World Trade Organisation talks would do between 100 and 1,000 times more good for developing countries than any realistic climate deal.
We need to ask for our Earth Summit back. The environment is important. That means no more Kyoto Protocols, It means no more forest-destroying, hunger-inducing biofuels. It means much more focus on green R&D, but mostly it means smart investments that focus on the problems that matter most right now. It means responding to poverty in ways that accomplish more than just making donors feel good.
Sure, sometimes solar panels can be the best way to provide access to electricity in far-flung communities, but for most of the 1.6bn people who live without electricity, we should opt for the tested, simple, and cheap solution: Hook them up to generators or power plants, which, like ours, run mostly on fossil fuels. When the sun goes down, it’s literally lights out for those people. What makes us think they should have technologies that are dearer, less reliable, and much feebler than those we rely on?
Similarly, indoor air pollution; kerosene and natural-gas stoves are much more likely to be cheap, flexible, and useful
Genuine sustainability and a truly green economy can be achieved only if we ensure real growth and development, the kind that will lift many more people out of poverty, the kind that will ultimately enable them to make responsible environmental decisions for themselves. This means getting the Doha Round of trade talks back on track.
Over the next 10 days in Rio there will be much talk about organic farming, electric cars, and solar panels. There will be no shortage of goodwill. But goodwill is not enough to change the fact the solutions being talked about are the wrong solutions, and the problems being discussed are not the most important ones. To get to the future we want, we need to get back to basics. We need to do what works.
* Bjorn Lomborg directs the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. (c) 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast
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