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Climate: Economists frowning over Kyoto

By DAN WHIPPLE   |   Oct. 4, 2004 at 8:43 AM   |   Comments

BOULDER, Colo., Oct. 4 (UPI) -- The Russian government has reversed field again, announcing that it will submit the Kyoto Treaty on global climate change to the Duma for ratification.

In December of last year, economist Andrei Illarionov said that the treaty in its current form put too many burdens on the Russian economy and should not be ratified.

Then, in May of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government favored the Kyoto process.

Then, as recently as early September, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov voiced concerns that the Kyoto Treaty would not do what was necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So, last week, the cabinet approved it and sent it along to the Duma, virtually assuring ratification. The treaty now should become binding, because nations that produce 55 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions will have signed on. Some significant parties remain absent, however, notably China and the United States.

Even after the cabinet decision, Illarionov did not let hs enthusiasm carry him away. He said, according to Interfax, "We understand that this is a political decision, a decision made necessary. ... This is not the kind of decision that we are happy about making."

They don't call the economics the dismal science for nothing. Illarionov's pessimism about the negative economic impact of reducing greenhouse gases is echoed by around the world.

Most anthropogenic, or human-caused, greenhouse-gas emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are the engine of industrial economies. Any effort to tinker with the fossil fuel status quo is met by hordes of economists shrieking like Dobby the house elf.

"There is no way you can grow an economy and reduce energy use," William O'Keefe, president of the George Marshall Institute in Washington, D.C., told United Press International.

"The problem is that there has been a line drawn in the sand on the climate issue," Michael Glantz, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, told UPI. "Almost nobody is being convinced otherwise. There are those who really believe, and those who don't believe."

Glants said there things that could be done to mitigate fossil fuels emissions that make sense for lots of other reasons.

"There is good reason to use less gasoline," he said. "There is good reason to be more energy efficient. There are lots of ways to chip at the problem."

Unlike most economists, though, Glantz said, Americans are optimists.

"In the eleventh hour, we're smart. We believe we'll solve it," he said, tongue halfway in cheek. "We have faith in technology."

Suppose no one had to wait for a major technological breakthrough to solve the climate problem. Suppose it could be done with existing technologies. That is the proposal of Princeton University engineering professor Robert Socolow who argues that 15 existing technologies each could take a bite out of increasing emissions -- he calls these "stabilization wedges" -- to bring industrial emissions under control.

Solving the climate problem is a relative matter, he said. In a paper in the journal Science in August, Socolow and co-author Stephen Pacala, also at Princeton, in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, defined it as stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at about 500 parts per million -- up considerably from the current level of about 375 ppm, but a level not reached in perhaps the past 30 million years.

Doing nothing -- or business as usual -- could result in CO2 concentrations of 800 ppm, or even 1,000 ppm. To stabilize at 500 ppm by 2125, requires removing about one-third of the CO2 emissions totals between those two scenarios.

The existing technologies cited by Socolow and Pacala as having the potential to provide emissions relief at varying quantitative levels include:

-- fuel-efficient vehicles;

-- reduced use of vehicles;

-- energy-efficient buildings;

-- combustion-efficient, coal-fired, baseload electric-generating plants;

-- substituting natural-gas-fired, baseload plants for coal plants;

-- capturing and storing CO2 underground at powerplants, hydrogen-production plants and synthetic fuels plants;

-- expanding nuclear power, wind power, solar power and wind-produced hydrogen;

-- replacing gasoline with fuel cells in hybrid automobiles;

-- expanding use of biomass;

-- reducing deforestation, and

-- using conservation tillage of agricultural lands.

Not all of these suggestions would be met with enthusiasm. Conservationists already have marshaled forces to oppose any revival of the nuclear power industry until its safety, cost and environmental issues can be resolved. The timber industry might not cheer reduced deforestation that limits available timberland.

"The most important thing to do is to concentrate on what we can do with the existing infrastructure," said former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey -- now a vice president at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton -- at a global warming conference this past summer. "There are all sorts of reports now about the relative advantages of hybrids and in a new generation plug-in hybrids, so that one can drive for short trips entirely on electric energy, but still have the advantages of having a gasoline tank and being able to use gasoline effectively and efficiently in the way that hybrids do."

The hybrid he drives, Woolsey said, gets 50 to 60 miles per gallon. A next-generation hybrid, using ethanol combined with gasoline, could increase that to 300 miles per gallon.

Half of U.S. oil is used in vehicles, so this technology could provide a substantial CO2 savings.

The cost of using these existing technologies has not been calculated, however.

"The dollar sign is conspicuously absent," Socolow told UPI. "My own view is that most of these compete with each other in the same price range, but somewhat beyond the historic cost of fossil fuels. Among the issues we have to think about is the cost of oil and gas in the time period of the next few decades. Will the price drop or come back up? The price of the competitor determines the effectiveness very strongly."

Socolow and Pacala's stabilization wedges are the sort of thing that could make even an economist happy. No Manhattan Project for uncertain hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. No high-risk investments in untested technologies. Just nice, safe, more of the same.

"We could easily imitate what the Europeans are doing," Socolow said. "We've allowed the Europeans to move forward in policy over the last four years."

Suddenly, not only Americans are putting their faith in technology.

--

A weekly series by UPI examining the potential impact of global climate change. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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