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
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
Extras
indybest
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
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
Latest stories from i100
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

Graduate Web Developer

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Graduate Database Developer (SQL)

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor