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Howard's End: Rethinking Climate Change

Howard's End: Back To Drawing Board On Climate Change

United States President, George Bush, is meeting a barrage of criticism over his decision to back away from regulating carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. But he was only hastening the inevitable, so now its back to the Kyoto drawing board. John Howard writes.

Until last week, global warming and climate change was synonymous with the Kyoto Protocol which requires industrialised countries to control emissions of greenhouse gases to strict targets and timetables.

But growing countries like China, India, Mexico and Brazil, with huge populations and energy use, have no Kyoto emission restrictions placed on them at all and that has upset the new U.S. Bush administration.

China, for example, now has an economy worth US $4 trillion, which is 22 times bigger than it was in 1978.

It is already using its vast and polluting coal reserves, and it is investing heavily in countries along its border such as Burma where for several years a massive, unregulated and largely unnoticed timber trade has stripped bare hundreds of square kilometres of ancient tropical forests for wood which is then taken into China.

China has also expanded its investment interests in Mongolia, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia and other central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan. Mongolia blames China for the collapse of its textile industry and Siberian officials are now fearing a Chinese economic invasion.

In 1998 and again in 2000, China issued a ban on logging to protect its own fast-disappearing forests. But that ban has created a deliberate incentive to destroy forests in other countries for China's use.

It looked good for China in the international community when its timber production plummeted 97 percent between 1997 and 2000, when only one million cubic metres was produced.

In that atmosphere, thousands of out-of-work Chinese forest workers and labourers flooded the Chinese town of Pianma on China's southern border with Burma to feed China's unquenchable demand for chopsticks, furniture and paper, much of which is exported to other countries as manufactured goods.

China's imports of logs has now skyrocketed from less than 5 million cubic metres in 1998 to more than 15 million cubic metres last year.

Chinese clearfelling logging activity in the Burmese rainforests are mirrored on its northern border where imports of logs from Russia have outstripped the number from Burma over the last two years.

Yet China, like most of the "developing" countries of the world, is not restricted on carbon emissions targets by the Kyoto Protocol.

Even as it became clear that most industrialised countries could not deliver on their Kyoto promises to reduce greenhouse gases, governments in every industrialised country officially pretended that the protocol was workable.

Some, especially in Europe, approached Kyoto talks and subsequent negotiations in The Hague with no serious plan for how they would comply with the targets.

For example, at Kyoto, Russia and Ukraine agreed to freeze their carbon emissions at 1990 levels. But because of the collapse of the Soviet economy, they were already emitting greenhouse gases at 40 percent below those levels.

So the emissions reductions they have available to "sell" are bogus if an international emissions and carbon trading system was ever to be established.

Australia seems to be following or, indeed, driving the U.S. with Industry Minister Nick Minchin saying as early as 7 March: " Australia would end up exporting jobs to developing countries unless they were forced to cut greenhouse gases in line with industrialised nations."

Mr Minchin continued, " The government has made it clear that, while it remains committed to meeting its international greenhouse obligations, it is not prepared to sacrifice economic growth and jobs."

Exactly the U.S. position now.

The U.S. is also heading into recession, and it has a major energy crisis on its hands with rolling power blackouts forecast across the country over its summer period.

But by making it clear that the U.S. will not pretend to meet the Kyoto limits, the Bush administration now has a responsibility to build alternatives.

Although there are scientists in the U.S. who do not support the modelling used to justify global warming, they say there is simply not enough scientific evidence to show that the earth is warming - or cooling.

U.S. Climatologist, Dr Fred Singer, disputes the contention that there is a consensus of 2,500 climate scientists supporting global warming. He says only a few are qualified as climatologists, and as contributors to the IPCC report, they were not polled about global warming with many of them now critical of the global warming conclusions.

Singer also wrote in the Washington Times on 22 April 1998: " The available atmospheric data simply do not support the elaborate computer-driven climate models that are being cited as "proof" of major future warming."

Singer wrote that more than 15,000 scientists, including 10,000 with advanced academic degrees, have now signed a petition against the climate accord adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997."

A covering letter to the 15,000 petition signed by Professor Frederick Setiz, past president of the National Academy of Science said, " The treaty (Kyoto) is, in our opinion, based upon flawed ideas. Research data on climate change do not show that human use of hydrocarbons is harmful. To the contrary, there is good evidence that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is environmentally helpful."

Nevertheless, to err on the side of caution the U.S. could now, for instance, sharply increase funding for research and development of affordable ways to move its economy entirely away from fossil fuels over the next few decades and raise efficiency of fossil-fuel burning in the interim.

In New Zealand, a draft National Energy and Conservation strategy has been released for public consultation which seems to suggest that a 20 percent reduction in the growth of energy use is a good idea.

If NZ businesses are projected to continue to grow in the next few years this growth reduction target would mean a scaling back in industrial growth to the extent that energy use and emissions would likely be 30 to 40 percent less than they would have been in say, 2012.

For the U.S., analysts say that kind of scaling back in energy use would cost 2 to 3 million jobs, extremely high increases in fuel and electricity rates resulting in disproportionate costs to low income families and overall economic losses of US$300 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

It is said that a country following Kyoto rules would incur extra costs of between 1 and 2 percent of its total GDP depending on the regime implemented.

In Britain, the government has pledged that 10 percent of the UK's energy will come from renewable energy resources by 2010.

But at present less than 3 percent of Britain's electricity comes from alternative sources. It also relies heavily on nuclear power generation.

So, using the British experience, we need to weigh up the benefits and problems of different sources of renewable energy.

In Britain almost all the UK's electricity generated from renewable sources comes from two hydroelectric dams in Scotland.

Hydroelectricity

The Benefits: very powerful and a tried and tested form of energy production.

The Problems: requires dams to be built which environmentalists say risks disturbing river and esturine ecosystems. The dams are also large and expensive to build.

Wind

Wind power has created a lot of interest and is one of the fastest growing energy technologies. There are 600 wind farms scattered around the UK although less than 0.25 percent of Britain's energy needs are currently met through wind power.

The Benefits: The UK, like NZ, is a windy country so it makes sense to harness the energy, particularly at the windiest times of the year. It is also cheap to harness.

The Problems: Each wind turbine is large - up to 70 metres across - and some people object to the whirring noise and to the idea of polluting the visual landscape. Birds are also killed when they fly into them. Wind turbines generate a relatively low amount of power and another 1,500 would have to be built in Britain by 2010 for just 2.5 percent of energy to come from the wind. The wind does not blow all the time so battery technology must also be used to store the energy, which is expensive to do.

Tidal and Wave Energy

Waves can be used to turn a turbine or generator - as on Islay where the UK's first, and only, commercial wave power station was opened last November. Tides can be used to fill a hydroelectric dam.

The Benefits: Like NZ, Britain has a huge coastline. A US company is considering building a plant to harness tidal power off the Welsh coast, using the aggregate from slag heaps to build a "hollow island" which would have its own regular tides.

The Problems: The Islay power station only generates 500kw - a relatively low rate of power. 10,000 such stations would be needed to create as much power as the two nuclear power stations in Scotland. Moreover, there are few sites with a great enough difference between high and low tides to make harnessing tide power possible.

Solar Power

Energy from the sun can be harnessed in solar cells. These can be small enough to meet specific energy needs such as heating water in a house, or they can be grouped together in larger banks.

The Benefits: While solar energy is expensive to harness at present, it is rapidly coming down in price. At least one company has developed a cell that can be used in low light and possibly even moonlight making it more reliable throughout the year.

The Problems: It is expensive to harness at present so it would need a high level of subsidy to make it viable. As with wind, this is an intermittent source of energy that might need expensive battery technology to make it reliable on a larger scale.

Biomass or Crop Fuel

Fast growing plants such as willow or elephant grass can be harvested and turned into wood chips which can be burnt in power stations. Certain types of waste from industrial and council rubbish tips could also be used.

The Benefits: A smart source of energy being cheap, easy and quick to develop and could value add to rural economies. Wood chips or sawdust from NZ timber mills could be used although transport and infrastructural costs would be high unless small power stations were located adjacent to forests or waste sites.

The Problems: Huge amounts of crops or waste would need to be used in order to make biomass worthwhile. For example, to provide half the electricity which comes from Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent, you would need to cover the whole of Kent with trees.

So there it is! There are already technologies available.

The UN panel's Accra Ghana report of 5 March entitled " Climate Change 2001: Mitigation" also offers the possible energy sources outlined above as a way of fighting global warming.

Interestingly, the report also includes nuclear power generation as a way of mitigating the effects of global warming and CO2 emissions. Some countries are starting to look at nuclear power generation again, despite the outrage from environmentalists.

The report also concedes that at least until 2020, global energy supply is likely to be dominated by relatively cheap and abundant fossil fuels.

There are sensible ways to reduce our use of energy and some of them make simple economic sense. But reducing productivity, putting industry in a costly straight-jacket and exporting NZ jobs to so-called undeveloped countries who are not restricted by Kyoto rules, like China, India, Mexico and Brazil, is not one of them.


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