What is being done

The core of the problem lies in the disparity between the industrial and developing countries in terms of carbon dioxide emission per head. Despite all the international conventions carbon dioxide emissions from developed countries are showing little sign of abating. The USA at twice the European average is still increasing its emissions which currently stand at 23 per cent of the world's total. The average citizen in the North American continent is responsible for around 6 tonnes of carbon per year. In Europe it is about 2.8 tonnes per person. Though starting from a very low base, the most rapidly rising per capita emissions are occurring in Southeast Asia, India and China.

As a first step on the path of serious CO2 abatement an accord was signed by over 180 countries in 1997 in Kyoto to cut CO2 emissions by 5.2 per cent globally based on 1990 levels. It has to be remembered that the UN IPCC scientists stated that a 60 per cent cut worldwide would be necessary to halt global warming, later endorsed by the UK Royal Commission on Pollution. The US has refused to ratify Kyoto but Russia has signed up which meant that the Treaty came into force in February 2005. The UK was on track to meet its 12.5 per cent reduction target thanks to the gas power programme and the collapse of heavy industry. However, these benefits have now been offset by the growth in emissions from transport. In 2003 there was a 1-2 per cent increase in CO2 emissions. Globally the year 2003 witnessed a significant rise in the level of atmospheric carbon to 3 ppm per year - nearly double the average for the past decade. If aircraft emissions were also taken into account the situation would be substantially worse.

One great anomaly is that air travel is excluded from the calculations of CO2. The Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) forecasts that by 2050 air transport will be responsible for two thirds of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Transport expects the numbers flying in and out of the UK to rise from 180 million in 2004 to 500 million in 2030 (reported in The Observer, 22 March 2004). Aviation's share of the UK's CO2 emissions will have increased four-fold by 2030. At the same time it should be noted that CO2 accounts for only one third of the global warming caused by aircraft (Tom Blundell and Brian Hoskins, members of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, New Scientist, 7 August 2004, p. 24).

Even more of a problem faces the USA. Kyoto set its reduction target against the 1990 level at 7 per cent. However, since then it has enjoyed a significant economic boom with a consequent increase in CO2 emissions. To meet the Kyoto requirement it would now have to make a cut of 30 per cent. The only way it would be prepared to consider this kind if target is by carbon trading, not, in itself, an illegitimate recourse. However, it all depends on the currency of exchange. The US wants to use trees to balance its carbon books. Planting forests may look attractive but it presents three problems.

First, there have been attempts to equate the sequestration capacity of trees with human activities such as driving cars, so, five trees could soak up the carbon from an average car for one year, or 40 trees counteract the carbon emitted by the average home in five years. Unfortunately there is not a reliable method of accounting for the sequestration capacity of a single tree let alone a forest. Another problem recently exposed in the USA is that forests are inclined to burn down. The last point refers back to the Hadley Centre prediction that there will be accelerating forest growth over the next 50 years, then rapid die-back, releasing massive quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. Overall, forests could possibly end up huge net contributors to global warming.

This seems to have been uppermost in the minds of the European delegates to the conference in The Hague in November 2000 when they refused to sign an agreement which allowed the USA to continue with business as usual in return for planting trees.

In the final analysis, if governments and society fail to respond to the imperatives set by climate change, what they cannot escape is the inevitability of dramatic increases in the cost of fossil-based energy as demand increasingly outstrips supply as reserves get ever closer to exhaustion. Market forces are already powering the drive towards renewable energy in some industrialised countries. When you see oil companies investing in renewables then it must be the dawning of the realisation that saving the planet might just be cost effective.

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