Global warming won't cost the earth

Three years after the Rio summit, world leaders are gathering in Berlin to review action on climate change. Progress has been slow, but that may not be such a bad thing, says Frances Cairncross Water pollution kills more people than global warming is likely to. Soil erosio n leaves more hungry. Deforestation has more dramatic effects

It has become the environmental threat to beat all such threats; the revenge of nature on economic growth; a morality tale of human greed and self-destruction. The accumulation in the atmosphere of gases given off by human activities will, if climatologists are right, trap the sun's returning rays like the glass in a greenhouse, causing the planet to warm up and the climate to change. The result, say greens, will be drought, flood, storms, famine and extinction.

The greens may be right. Or they may be wrong. Predicting the impacts of climate change is an uncertain business, and the more scientists understand, the more complex the effects appear. But a number of things are already apparent.

One is that global warming is unlike almost any other environmental problem. Its causes are international: the greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, are the product of many human activities, from farming and forestry to motoring, and they are released by every country on earth. Its effects, too, are global. And its timescale is immensely long. While most kinds of pollution are felt within a few years - or at least a human lifetime - the greenhouse effect may last for several centuries. It is thus virtually irreversible.

Three years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, most of the world's governments signed a treaty agreeing to do something about climate change. From today until 7 April, the signatories hold their first formal meeting, in Berlin.

For those who recall the razzmatazz of Rio, there will be an air of fin de sicle disillusion. For it has become clear that few countries are likely to deliver even the modest promises they made three years ago.

The treaty vaguely bound signatories to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". The rich countries volunteered to go further, and prepare plans to show how they might restore their output of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels.

In fact, few countries will carry out such plans. Britain may do so, thanks largely to electricity privatisation, which has encouraged huge shifts away from coal-fired to gas-fired generation: natural gas releases almost half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it burns. But generally, a decade of low energy prices has removed the incentive to economise on fossil fuels, and governments have had little success in restoring it by pushing through energy taxes.

In fact, even if the rich countries did meet their targets, the impact on the build-up of carbon dioxide would be small. Most of the growth in the demand for energy will come from developing countries. Their current energy use is small by first-world standards, but rising fast. By the middle of the next century, China's carbon-dioxide output will probably exceed that of the entire OECD.

Moreover, a growing proportion of the world's energy use over the next half century will involve burning coal, the most carbon-rich of all fuels. At present, coal is a less important source of global energy than oil. But it accounts for 70 per cent of the heat content of the world's fossil- fuel reserves. Moreover, about one-third of the world's known coal reserves are under China, and quite a lot under the former Soviet Union. It is hard to see how those relatively poor countries will be persuaded to leave their coal unburnt. Yet that is what must happen if the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to be stopped.

Part of the difficulty is that there is no easy technological fix that would allow coal to be burnt but release less carbon dioxide. The rich world scrubs sulphur dioxide from coal gases before they escape from factory chimneys, and has therefore achieved dramatic reductions in sulphur dioxide emissions and acid rain. But no satisfactory technology can yet strip the carbon dioxide from coal smoke. And many of the technologies that reduce the output of other energy-related pollutants (such as nitrous oxide) involve the burning of more fuel, not less.

In the long term, the only real option is to develop fuels that burn no carbon: nuclear, hydro, solar and so forth. The problem here is that some of these options (nuclear, hydro) impose damage on future generations that may be just as unwelcome as a warmer climate. Posterity might even prefer more storms to more nuclear waste. As for solar power, its future depends on its economics. Yet there is probably more chance that coal will become cheaper to burn (because it is already widely used commercially, and so its efficient use attracts commercial research) than that solar power will undercut it.

The upshot is that, for many countries, the costs of measures to slow down global warming will be prohibitively high. They will agree to undertake them only if the rest of the world can find some way to compensate them. But if, say, the rich world has to bribe China not to burn its coal, the cost to the rich countries of averting global warming will also be immense.

Will the rich countries be prepared to bear such a burden? The costs of measures that might slow down climate change are certain, and have to be incurred soon. The longer we postpone action, the more gas builds up in the atmosphere, and the more the world becomes locked in to high- energy technologies.

Yet the pay-off is far down the track, and its value depends on knowing how harmful global warming will be. Work by William Cline, a scrupulous and scientifically literate American economist, suggests that the benefits of taking action do not overtake the costs until about 2150. And Mr Cline sees global warming largely in terms of costs. Yet it is inconceivable that a change of such complexity will not bring gains (faster growth of crops and trees? warmer climates in disagreeably cold lands?) as well as losses.

Given the difficulties of doing something about climate change, should we try? Some measures are certainly worth taking because they make sense in their own right. Many countries subsidise energy consumption. Britain offers tax breaks on company cars. Germany subsidises coal. Many developing countries sell electricity for less than it costs to produce. Removing such subsidies would make the economy work more efficiently and benefit the environment, too.

Indeed, wise governments should go further, and deliberately shift the tax burden away from earning and saving (which should surely be encouraged, not penalised), towards energy consumption.

Beyond that, governments should do little. The most rational course is to adapt to climate change, when it happens. On past trends, most countries will by then be richer, and so better able to afford to build sea walls or develop drought-resistant species of plants. Money that might now be spent on curbing carbon-dioxide output can be invested instead, either in preventing other kinds of environmental damage or in creating productive assets that will generate future income to pay for adaptation. The richer countries are, the more likely they are to be able to protect their citizens from the impact of climate change.

Moreover, once climate change is clearly under way it will be more apparent, as it now is not - what needs to be done and where. Most of the decisions involved in adapting to change will be taken and paid for by the private sector rather than by government. Above all, adapting does not require the laborious negotiation of complex international treaties.

Adaptation is especially appropriate for poor countries, once they have taken all the low-cost and no-cost measures they can find. Given the scarcity of capital, it makes good sense for them to delay investing in expensive ways to curb carbon-dioxide output. Future economic growth is likely to make them rich enough to offset those effects of climate change that cannot be prevented.

Many people find such arguments unpalatable. To many environmentalists, the idea of adapting to climate change, instead of striving to minimise it, will sound wilfully irresponsible.

Yet the harsh reality is that plenty of other kinds of environmental damage deserve greater priority. Water pollution kills more people than global warming is likely to. Soil erosion leaves more people hungry. The loss of species that is now happening at a cataclysmic rate in many parts of the world is just as irreversible. Deforestation has locally (and, perhaps, internationally) more dramatic effects on climate. The world has only so much wealth to devote to solving environmental problems. Many of these deserve greater priority than global warming.

The writer is on the staff of the `Economist', and the author of `Costing the Earth'. Her latest book, `Green, Inc' will be published by Earthscan and Island Press in May.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
Life and Style
food + drink
News
video
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial IT Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Commercial IT Solicitor - London We h...

Business Analyst / Project Manager - Financial Services

£40000 - £45000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: One of the mos...

Lead Business Analyst - Banking - London - £585

£525 - £585 per day: Orgtel: Lead Business Analyst - Investment Banking - Lond...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home