26 February 2004 Edition

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It's getting hot in here

In 2001, in one of his first acts as President of the United States, George W Bush pulled out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an agreement drawn up by industrialised countries to regulate the first real cuts of CO2 emissions. Now, a secret report prepared by the Pentagon is warning that climate change — caused by greenhouse emissions — may lead to a global catastrophe costing millions of lives.

The environmental cost of the West's unsustainable economic policies has been described as a far greater risk than so-called terrorism.

The Pentagon report was ordered by an influential US defence adviser, Andrew Marshall, but was kept secret by US defence chiefs for four months until a copy was obtained by British Sunday newspaper The Observer. The report predicts that "abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies", concluding: "Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life... once again, warfare would define human life."

Its authors — Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and a former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of Global Business Network, based in California — say climate change should immediately be considered a top political and military issue and "should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern".

The Observer article highlighted the probable scenarios that could occur as a result of climate change. They include a future where Britain (and probably Ireland) will have winters similar to those in Siberia, as a result of European temperatures dropping radically around 2020.

By 2007, violent storms could make large parts of the Netherlands uninhabitable and could lead to a breach in the aqueduct system in California, which supplies all the water needed to southern California.

Coming from the Pentagon, normally a bastion of conservative politics with a strong focus on military and political strategy, the report is expected to bring environmental issues to the fore in the US Presidential race.

Breaking protocol

The report promises to draw angry attention to US environmental and military policies, long overdue after Washington's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and George Bush's denial of global warming — a stance that stunned scientists worldwide.

America's abandonment of Kyoto means that those least responsible for the problem, the developing countries, suffer the most from the environmental effects of the CO2 gases released into the atmosphere by industrialised countries.

The costs of recurring floods, droughts, storms and the rise of sea levels are ever-increasing. The spread of disease as a result of warmer temperatures, which aid insects such as mosquitoes, and lower crop yields caused by excess heat and uncertain rains, is starting to take its toll, particularly in Africa.

Deserts are spreading. Countries in Southern Europe, for example Spain and Italy, have joined the Desertification Convention, spurred on by the fact that the Sahara desert appears to be crossing the Mediterranean. Thirty-two countries in Africa are already members.

In central Europe, the Himalayas and North and South America, glaciers are melting and the rising level and warmer temperatures of oceans is endangering some Pacific islands.

The world is heating up —and all in the name of progress.

Those who are suffering the effects of climate change the most haven't enjoyed any of the advantages of that progress. The number of people in the world without access to electricity has increased in the last 20 years and will increase again by 25% in the next 20 years.

In 1992, the Climate Change Convention was agreed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was signed by 150 nations, who agreed that new technologies, such as wind, wave and solar power, would be promoted, while coal and oil would be progressively abandoned.

Progress has been slow over the last decade, and CO2 emissions have risen by nearly 10% since Rio. Kyoto was to be the world's final solution, but hopes of saving the planet from environmental destruction were crushed, when the US announced that it would not be complying with the protocol. Bush had succumbed to the pressure of the energy companies and his own experience in the oil industry when taking that decision. This bias was confirmed when he also announced that the oil reserves in Alaska would be opened, despite the huge environmental damage that any oil exploration and extraction would cause.

The rest of the world agreed to continue with the Kyoto deal, but lack of compliance from the US (which produces 36% of the world's total greenhouse gases), means only so much can be achieved.

If at first you don't succeed

Many countries have tried to cut emissions, but not all have been successful. The British Government has announced that it wants steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector and offshore oil and gas industry to help meet its target of curbing greenhouse gas pollution. It has still, however, under new EU rules, to set emission limits on around 1,500 companies, responsible for half its CO2 pollution.

The European Union has created a trading scheme that will allow countries exceeding their quotas to buy extra pollution rights from those which undershoot their targets.

That is the route being taken by the Irish Government, which plans to purchase enough carbon credits within the next three years to allow Irish industry to continue to emit 96-98% of today's carbon dioxide levels — well in excess of the quota agreed by Ireland under the Kyoto agreement. As some environmentalists suggest, the Minister for the Environment Martin Cullen, would be more comfortable with a portfolio for industry.

The Irish Government will purchase 67.5 million carbon credits between 2005 and 2007. Estimates by the government suggest that the cost of emissions of CO2 to the taxpayer will amount to about €10 a tonne. However, estimates by campaign group 'Friends of the Irish Environment' suggest that if the rest of Europe follows in the trend of Ireland, this figure could rise six-fold, costing the taxpayer up to €1.1 billion in total.

Once again, the Irish Government is ready to put the market ahead of the health and future of the Irish people.

Other European countries, like Norway, are cleaning up their act, but they are still a long way away from their Kyoto target. Norway has reduced its total emissions of greenhouse gases by 2.5% from 2001-'02. According to the Kyoto protocol, Norwegian greenhouse gas emissions in 2008-'12 should not be more than 1% higher than in 1990. However, since 1990 emissions are already up 6%, due mainly to increased production of oil and gas, and road traffic growth.

For its part, German industry is not maintaining its commitment to reduce emissions, according to Germany's Environmental Minister Jürgen Trittin. New figures show that the country's CO2 emissions have continued to rise, and increasing by six million tons between 2000 and 2002. Industry leaders had promised to reduce emissions by 20 million tons by 2005 and 45 million tons by 2010, but the latest figures show they are going backward, not forward.

Most of the world may have signed up to Kyoto, but the list of countries breaking the protocol is a long one. With countries like the United States, Canada and Australia recording double-figure increases in their output of greenhouse gasses, there isn't much hope that the promises of Kyoto will be fulfilled.

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