Climate plan called unrealistic

Times Staff Writer

A United Nations panel on Friday released its most comprehensive strategy to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming, but experts said political and economic realities likely doom it to failure.

Although more than 100 countries backed the report, experts said its call for a global, multi-trillion-dollar effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is unrealistic.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 9, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
China plant: A photo with an article on greenhouse gases in Section A on Saturday showed a cooling tower at a coal plant in China. The tower was emitting steam, not a greenhouse gas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Global warming: A May 5 article in Section A about a United Nations report on global warming said that even supporters were daunted by the speed and scope of action that was necessary to stabilize carbon emissions at roughly current levels. It should have referred to stabilizing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere.

The United States and China -- which account for more than 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions -- approved the report but have given no indication that they would reverse their long-held opposition to mandatory reductions in emissions.


“It’s not realistic from a political standpoint, and it’s not realistic because those targets are incredibly expensive,” said Robert Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale University.

Even supporters of the plan were daunted by the speed and scale of action required by the report to stabilize carbon emissions at roughly current levels.

“It’s hard to imagine,” said Jae Edmonds, an economist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland. “So many things have to happen so fast, and they are so big.”

The report, by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was released in Bangkok after a week of contentious debate.

Its primary instrument for reducing greenhouse gas concentrations is a system in which governments would place a cap on emissions and charge polluters for every ton of carbon dioxide beyond that point. That would force companies to cut emissions and invest in energy efficiency and alternative fuels.

The price per ton would reach up to $100 by 2030. By then, the system could cost up to 3% of the world’s gross domestic product, the report said.


The Bush administration quickly denounced the restrictions as too expensive.

“It would cause a global recession,” said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“Our goal is reducing emissions and growing the economy,” he said during a news conference in Bangkok.

But Robert Socolow, a carbon mitigation expert at Princeton University, said that taking a cheaper and slower path could still be costly. A study by the British government last year found that damage from global warming -- flooding, starvation, drought and other calamities -- would easily top 5% of global GDP annually.

The U.N. report looked at a variety of scenarios, but only the most expensive would avoid the worst perils of rising temperatures.

That course requires annual emissions to peak by 2015 and fall to 50% to 85% of 2000 levels by mid-century. It would limit the temperature increase to 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

The concentration of greenhouse gases would be stabilized between 445 and 490 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents -- a measure that factors in the warming effects of all greenhouse gases. The current concentration is about 425 parts per million.


The United States has opposed calls for mandatory emissions cuts and carbon taxes, instead placing its hopes on voluntary reductions and future technologies that would be cleaner and cheaper.

China also has opposed mandatory reductions, saying they would derail its economic growth.

The country unsuccessfully fought to delete the most stringent emissions scenario from the report, participants in the conference said. India, the world’s fifth biggest polluter, joined the effort.

The most prominent supporters of the plan were European nations.

“The report shows -- and this is encouraging -- that ambitious climate protection is economically manageable,” said German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm.

The U.N. report is the third of four installments being issued this year. With the input of more than 2,000 scientists and the approval of more than 100 governments, they are the closest thing the world has to a consensus on global warming.

The release in February of the first report, which definitively blamed humans for global warming, helped galvanize world opinion after years of debate and shifted the focus of activity toward fixing the problem.

The second report, released in April, looked at the potential effects of global warming. It said that that rising temperatures, if left unchecked, would lead to widespread coastal flooding, starvation and species extinctions.


The current report is as much about policy as it is about science, asking how much the world is willing to pay to stem global warming.

Among its options are several more affordable scenarios. For example, one plan would stabilize greenhouse gas levels between 590 and 710 parts per million. It would cost 0.2% of global GDP in 2030, compared with 3% in the most stringent plan.

Annual emissions would continue to rise until 2060, increasing more than 60% above 2000 levels.

But under that scenario, temperatures would rise about 6 degrees, which the U.N. panel has described as calamitous.

Global temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists and an author of the current report, said he hoped it would increase pressure on the United States to agree to mandatory emissions cuts.


“The industrialized world needs to step up first,” he said.

The United States, he said, lags behind Europe, which already runs a market in which emissions permits are bought and sold.

The crux of the problem is deciding who should pay to contain global warming.

China and other developing countries argue that industrialized nations should foot the bill, since they are responsible for the bulk of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere over the last two centuries.

That view is reflected in the Kyoto Protocol, which requires participants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions before 2012 by an average of 5% below 1990 levels.

The Bush administration has refused to join the Kyoto pact on the grounds that it does not restrict emissions in the developing world.

China, which opens a new coal-fired power plant every week, is on track to surpass the United States as the biggest polluter as soon as this year.

At that pace, its yearly emissions will double those of the United States in less than a decade, said Gregg Marland, a fossil fuel pollution expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.


The U.N. report concludes that the greatest potential for curbing future emissions lies in the developing world, since those countries tend to be the least energy efficient.

But Mendelsohn, the Yale economist, said calls for immediate, aggressive cuts could alienate developing countries.

“It’s best to start by setting small targets in the near future -- not ones where China has to choose between economic growth and emissions reduction,” he said.





Delegates from more than 100 countries agreed at a conference in Bangkok on Friday that acting now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can mitigate global warming.

Top carbon dioxide emitters in 2004

in millions of tons


World*: 26,583

U.S.: 5,800

China: 4,732

Russia: 1,529

Japan: 1,215

India: 1,103

Germany: 849

Canada: 551

Italy: 462

S. Korea: 462

France: 387

* Includes emissions from international aviation and marine bunkers


Sources: International Energy Agency, Associated Press