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Thursday, December 6, 2007
Crops hit, more water shortages, higher sea levels, bigger disease risk
Saving the world's poorest people from the effects of runaway climate change will require the west to cut carbon emissions by four-fifths and display the political commitment shown by the United States in developing the atomic bomb or putting a man on the moon, the United Nations said last night.
In its annual human development report, the UN said the international community would need to invest two-thirds of what is currently spent globally on arms to prevent a buildup in greenhouse gases that would trigger a rise in temperatures of more than 2C.
The UN said it would cost about 1.6% of global GDP - around £800b a year - to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 but stressed that a failure to act now would be the 21st-century equivalent of the lack of leadership that led to the 20th century's two world wars.
The report, released in the run-up to next month's UN climate change conference in Bali, said vulnerability to climate disasters was heavily concentrated in poor countries, with 98% of those affected in 2000-04 living in the developing world.
One person in 19 living in the world's poorest countries was at risk from climate dangers compared with one in 1,500 in the rich west, the UN said. Its health check on the state of the world warned that climate change could reverse attempts to tackle poverty, by reducing food production in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, exacerbating water shortages in regions such as the Middle East, raising sea levels in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, damaging fragile ecosystems, and damaging human health by increasing the chances of diseases such as malaria.
Rich countries, which account for half global CO2 emissions but only 15% of the world's population, would have to take the lead in preventing the world from using up its carbon budget for the entire 21st century by 2032, the UN said. ""They carry the burden of historic responsibility for the climate change problem. And they have the financial resources and technological capabilities to initiate deep and early cuts in emissions.""
The UN said that avoiding an increase in global temperature of more than 2C would require rich countries to cut emissions by at least 80% by 2050, with a cut of 30% by 2020. Emissions from developing countries would need to peak around 2020, with cuts of 20% by 2050. The scale of the cuts demanded by the UN is far in excess of those currently being considered by policymakers.
The report said reductions of 60% in carbon emissions could still leave temperatures rising by 4-5C and leave carbon levels at 660-750 parts per million in the atmosphere, way above the 450ppm most experts believe is the Earth's safe limit and which would restrict global warming to 2C.
That kind of temperature rise, with the related increase in sea levels and disruptive weather, could cause havoc in poorer countries, which would be hardest hit by climate change and which have the least money to mitigate the effects.
The UN said such 80% cuts in greenhouse gases would require a range of measures. It called for a global carbon tax to be introduced at a starting rate of $10-20 per ton of CO2 emitted, rising eventually to $60-100 a ton; a beefed-up system of carbon trading; improvements in energy efficiency; extra investment in green technologies; and a global climate change mitigation facility established with a $25bn-$50bn budget to support low carbon transition in the developing world.
It said that even this radical package of measures would not avoid dangerous climate change, and that rich countries would also need to increase aid budgets by $86bn a year to help poor countries adapt to the effects of global warming.
The UN said that the developed world had caused the problem of climate change and needed to take responsibility for cutting emissions.
If every person in the world had the same carbon footprint as someone living in a high-income country, there would need to be six planets to cope, the UN said, while bringing everybody up to the level of carbon emissions in the US and Canada would require nine planets. Among the report's findings were that the 19 million people living in New York state have a bigger carbon footprint than the 766 million people living in the world's 50 poorest countries; Texas has higher emissions than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa; the 60 million people in Britain produce more CO2 than the 472 million living in Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam combined; an average air conditioning unit in Florida emits more CO2 in a year than a person in Afghanistan or Cambodia in their lifetime; and that the average dishwasher in Europe emits as much CO2 in a year as three Ethiopians.
""Behind the numbers and the measurement is a simple, overwhelming fact"", the report says. ""We are recklessly mismanaging our ecological interdependence. In effect, our generation is running up an unsustainable ecological debt that future generations will inherit. We are drawing down the stock of environmental capital of our children.""
The UN is calling for the Bali conference to be far more ambitious than setting a timetable for tighter targets when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012. ""We can avoid 21st-century reversals in human development and catastrophic risks for future generations, but only by choosing to act with a sense of urgency. That sense of urgency is currently missing. There is no such thing as a last chance in human affairs. But the post-2012 Kyoto framework comes close.""
The report rejects the idea that combating climate change is all about cost, since it says there will be large net benefits over time. The upfront costs are potentially large, but it argues there are likely to be economic benefits beyond what is achieved by stabilizing temperatures.
The huge investments should stimulate demand and lead to innovation and productivity jumps in a wide array of sectors.