Saving the Earth: Who Sacrifices? : Environment Could Lose Out in Face of Economic Realities

Times Environmental Writer

Will U.S. consumers do without air conditioners in new cars?

Will China deny citizens the chance to own a refrigerator?

Will Brazil go deeper in debt by cutting back logging of its lush rain forests?

Will Britons pay billions of dollars more for electricity to reduce their reliance on polluting coal-powered generating plants?

In short, will the nations of the world--rich and poor alike--make huge sacrifices in an effort to spare the global environment from further destruction?

Such tough questions are coming to the fore as world political leaders try as never before to cooperate and confront as a group the problems of a planet in distress.

What Should Be Done?

What actions should be taken? What are their political, social and economic costs? And what are the consequences if nations fail to act?


More than a decade ago, George F. Kennan, the distinguished U.S. diplomat and key figure in America’s post-World War II “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union, predicted that environmental issues eventually would be as important as arms control on the international agenda. Although that time clearly has not arrived, there is little doubt that environmental issues command increasing attention these days.

Interest has been sharpened by a series of events that, at least to some, portend the approach of an environmental apocalypse.

The American grain belt had been scorched by a record drought. There was disturbing new evidence that man-made chemicals had inflicted even greater damage than first thought to the ozone shield that protects life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet solar rays. Beaches on both U.S. coasts and here across the Atlantic had been fouled by medical wastes.

‘Greenhouse Effect’

Even more ominous, average global temperatures appeared to be rising--a phenomenon consistent with predictions based on an acceleration of the “greenhouse effect.”

Now there is increasing talk of expanding an existing international accord to protect the Earth’s ozone layer from further destruction by harmful man-made chemicals, and of forging within five to six years an even more complex and politically difficult pact to take concrete steps to allay the so-called “greenhouse effect,” which threatens to alter the Earth’s climate.

“There is not a single nation or individual on Earth whose well-being is not finally dependent on its biological resources; its seas and rivers, grasslands, forests, soil and air,” Mostafa K. Tolba, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said here last week.

“Unless all nations (mount) a massive and sustained effort into safeguarding their shared living resources, we would face a catastrophe on a scale rivaled only by nuclear war.”

There was cause for both optimism and skepticism here last week.

Environmental ministers and other delegates from 124 nations, convening for a “Saving the Ozone Layer” conference, drove home the potential for cooperation, but also the deep disagreements that divide developing nations from developed ones.

13 More Nations Sign

Thirteen more nations announced that they would sign the landmark Montreal Protocol, which limits the use and production of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, commonly known as “Freons.” If they follow through, the 13 would bring to 44 the number of nations that have signed and ratified the treaty. Between them, they would represent 92% of the world’s CFC production capacity.

Moreover, the United States and the 12-nation European Economic Community vowed to go beyond the protocol’s requirements and totally phase out their use of the chemicals by the turn of the century. There is little doubt that the London conference will have an impact in May when parties to the Montreal Protocol meet for the first time to review the accord’s provisions since it took effect last January.

But a majority of the remaining delegates at the London conference refused to make a commitment to the Montreal Protocol. They are worried about raising their nations’ standard of living, or are frustrated at being asked to make sacrifices when the industrialized nations--which produce and consume 90% of the world’s CFCs--were largely responsible for damage to the ozone layer on their march toward development.

The drive to get more nations to join the accord and to strengthen its provisions is a test case for how the world may respond to an even more complex issue--slowing the greenhouse effect.

While the protocol covers essentially one family of chemicals, reducing emissions of so-called greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide will be many times more difficult because the bulk of these emissions result from burning such fossil fuels as coal, oil and natural gas to meet basic human needs for food, shelter and transportation.

CFCs are widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning, as propellants in aerosol sprays, in the manufacturing of foam insulation and other products and in solvents used to clean electronic components like computer chips.

Third World Worries

What “haunts” developing countries, India’s environmental minister Z.R. Anzari said, was the possibility that safer substitutes would either not become available soon enough to meet the rising expectations of growing populations, or that they would be too expensive.

“Any reduction in these resources for whatever reason would mean that the poor of these countries will have to wait longer for the promised freedom from hunger and poverty,” he said. “Today, the poor are no more prepared to wait and there will be social upheaval if they are asked to wait any longer,” he warned.

China and India served notice that it would be difficult for them to sign the Montreal Protocol unless richer industrialized countries made financial and technological aid available to help them acquire the more expensive but safer substitutes when they become available, sometime in the mid-1990s.

In China, with a population of 1.1 billion, fewer than one out of 10 families has a refrigerator. That is why China has built 12 CFC production plants. Developing countries produce less than 5% of the world’s CFCs.

Still, it is estimated that it would cost $360 million to replace existing plants in the Third World that produce CFCs.

Tolba, one of the architects of the Montreal Protocol, suggested that the West compensate developing countries for cutting back on use of CFCs. Such plans, he said, could include subsidies or other forms of favored treatment to allow developing countries to switch to safer but more expensive substitutes.

In an interview, Joan Martin Brown, the United Nations Environment Program’s liaison to the United States, said that industrialized countries in general have not responded well in addressing issues raised in the Third World when it comes to either ozone depletion or global warming.

“The Third World says you’re telling us not to do what you did to achieve your high standard of living. What are you going to do for us? Do you want to rent the trees from us? You know you can rent them for $1 billion a year in hard currency and we won’t cut them down. We’ll use that money to do the things we need to do. If you don’t want to rent them, what is your quid pro quo? So far we haven’t been very forthcoming or very innovative,” Brown said.

This is a common refrain. “It is not enough to merely show concern because of the steady destruction of rain forests in tropical countries,” Mexico’s ecology minister, Patricio Chirinos, told the London conference. “What is needed is to design and implement an international program to provide technical and economic resources and provide alternative jobs for the farmers and growers whose survival now depends on wresting land from the forest,” he said.

Industrialized countries, on the other hand, have been vague about how they would respond to appeals for help. U.S. officials, for example, have said that the nation’s federal budget deficit makes such additional foreign aid difficult.

The developed world faces major costs as well in dealing with both global warming and ozone depletion. Switching to CFC substitutes will not be cheap. Worldwide, it will cost $6 billion over the next decade for all CFC producers to restructure their businesses, according to Archie Dunham, a vice president at Du Pont Co., the world’s largest producer of CFCs. Current world production exceeds 1 million tons annually.

Call for Retrofitting

Dunham told the London conference that these figures pale in comparison to the cost to industry of gearing up and making products such as refrigerators, air conditioners and cleaning equipment that can operate with the new chemicals. In the United States, for example, more than $135 billion in installed equipment is dependent on CFCs. The cost to replace this equipment would be many times more,” he said.

For example, he said, there were about 120,000 industrial refrigeration machines operating throughout the world with a refrigeration capacity of at least 200 tons. But, manufacturers worldwide can only turn out 4,500 new machines a year. At that rate it would take about 30 years to replace the old units. The obvious conclusion, he said, is to retrofit existing machines if CFCs are to be phased out “in a timely fashion.”

“If you stop for a moment and think about the infrastructure dependent on CFCs, you can begin to appreciate the dimensions of the challenge,” Dunham said.

Consumers also have a part to play in curbing global environmental problems. Cars emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Air conditioners use CFCs as cooling agents. The CFCs escape to the atmosphere through leaks or after appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners are junked.

Environmentalists suggest rescinding the 65-m.p.h. rural speed limit, which increases daily U.S. oil consumption by 3%, or 500,000 barrels.

U.S. motorists could curb their appetite for bigger, higher-performance cars. Each time the average fuel economy on vehicles declines by one mile per gallon, it means another 420,000 barrels of oil will be burned. That adds about 2.6% to daily oil consumption. U.S. auto makers were allowed to make bigger, less fuel-efficient cars on grounds that jobs were at stake.

There have been suggestions that new-car buyers go without air conditioners until industry comes up with safer cooling chemicals that don’t deplete the ozone layer and contribute to the greenhouse effect. The new auto air conditioners will not be available until the 1994 model year.

Developing countries said they will be watching the United States for developments. In a recent Washington interview, Kilaparti Ramakrishna of India, a senior research associate at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, pointed to what he said was the contradiction in Western concern about global warming and their profligate waste of energy.

Matter of ‘Political Will’

“Are you prepared to lower your standard of living? You won’t drive less miles in your car, but you tell the Third World not to cut trees,” he said.

“The problem,” said William Nitze, deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of environment, “is going to be one of political will. Those steps that do impose some short-term pain on the American voter and taxpayer are not going to be easy to sell.”

So far, the Bush Administration has talked about renewed energy conservation efforts but has not yet unveiled a comprehensive energy program. Even if energy conservation is successful, scientists say that governments everywhere must go further and begin to develop serious alternative energy sources, including solar, wind and a safer nuclear option.

Despite the obstacles, there have been some early successes in redressing the human race’s damage to the environment.

The Montreal Protocol stands out among such achievements, and there are moves afoot to strengthen its provisions controlling CFCs. Not only have industrialized nations signed it, but a number of Third World countries as well.

Robert E. Grady, the White House’s deputy director for natural resources, said that despite momentous economic and political problems, protecting the global environment has strong appeal.

“The beautiful thing about the environment . . . is that it does so clearly cut across ideological lines,” Grady said. “The issue is protecting the mutual inheritance of all of us and all those who follow.”