Risk of Global Climate Change
the beginning of industrialization, economic
most countries has been accompanied by growth in the consumption of fossil
more and more coal, oil, and natural gas being burned by factories, electric power plants, motor
vehicles, and households. The resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have turned into the largest
source of greenhouse
that trap the infrared radiation from the earth within its atmosphere and create the risk of global
warming. Because the earth’s environmental systems are so complex, the exact timing and extent
to which human economic activities will change the planet’s climate are still unclear. But
many scientists believe that the changes are already observable.
According to the 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
by 2100 the mean global temperature could increase by 1.0–3.5 degrees Celsius and the global
sea level could rise by 15–95 centimeters if current trends in greenhouse gas emissions continue.
The 2001 report of the same Intergovernmental Panel has corrected the range of predicted temperature
increase to 1.4-5.8 degrees Celsius. Though these may still seem like minor increases, they could
have multiple adverse consequences ( along with some uncertain benefits). Forests, coral reefs, and
other ecological systems, unable to adapt to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns, will
be damaged and irreversible losses for biological diversity will result. People will also suffer—and
those in poor countries are likely to suffer the most, being less prepared to cope with the changes.
Many developing countries in arid and semiarid regions may see their access to safe water worsen.
(As things stand today, more than one billion people lack access to safe water.) Tropical diseases
may spread farther to the north. Droughts will become more frequent and intense in Asia and Africa,
and flooding will likely become a bigger problem in temperate and humid regions. While food production
could become easier in middle and high latitudes (in areas that tend to have higher per capita incomes),
in the tropics and subtropics yields will likely fall. Large numbers of people could be displaced by
a rise in the sea level—including tens of millions in Bangladesh alone, as well as entire nations
inhabiting low-lying islands such as those in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Most threatening is the fact that, according to current understanding, the global climate is a finely
tuned mechanism that can be pushed out of balance and irreversibly set on a course toward catastrophic
consequences that scientists can’t even fully predict. These risks are hard to evaluate, but
they appear credible enough to demand urgent attention.
Whose responsibility is it?
amount of carbon dioxide a country emits into the atmosphere depends mainly on the size of its economy,
the level of its industrialization, and the efficiency of
its energy use. Even though developing countries contain
most of the world’s population, their industrial production and energy consumption per capita
are relatively low. Thus at this point there seems to be little doubt that the primary responsibility
for creating the risk of global warming lies with developed
countries (see Map 14.1; Figures 14.1 and 14.2).
The United States is the largest
contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Although it contains just 4 percent of the world’s
population, it produces almost 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Russia was recently
replaced by China as the second largest emitter, but on a per capita basis it is still far ahead
of China (see Figures 14.1 and 14.2).
Traditionally, increased energy
consumption—accompanied by increased carbon dioxide emissions—was directly linked to
economic growth (so that the greater a country’s GDP, the higher its energy consumption and
pollutant emissions). However, in the 1980s and 1990s carbon dioxide emissions per dollar of GDP
declined substantially across developed and developing countries (see Data Table
5). This occurred because environmentally cleaner technologies were introduced, and energy use
became more efficient. In addition, the share of the service sector--which requires proportionately
less energy than industry--increased in many countries (see Chapter 9).
Unfortunately, these changes were not sufficient to stop the growth of global carbon dioxide emissions.
To eliminate the risk of global climate change, concerted efforts are needed from the governments
of most countries to further increase energy efficiency and move away from today’s heavy reliance
on fossil fuels.
At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), developed and transition
countries agreed to work toward stabilizing their greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by
2000 (in the Framework Convention on Climate Change). However, by 1997, when representatives of 165
countries gathered in Kyoto (Japan) for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, it was clear
that most countries —including the United States—were falling far short of that target.
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the conference, was for the first time meant to become legally binding
and called on all wealthy nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6–8 percent below 1990
levels by 2008-12.
This agreement is still considered the most ambitious global environmental undertaking in history,
given the high cost of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, the broad range of economic activities
that will have to be affected by climate-friendly technological change, and the long-term nature of
the environmental risks under consideration. Thus it is no wonder that achieving a broad international
consensus on the ways of implementing the Kyoto Protocol proved extremely difficult. Developing countries’ participation
in it was postponed and concrete mechanisms of implementation remained to be further negotiated. At
the next global conference in The Hague (Netherlands) in 2000, representatives of 184 states still
failed to agree on specific mechanisms for Kyoto Protocol implementation. Moreover, in 2001 US President
George Bush officially refused to proceed with its ratification, referring to the possible damage to
US economic interests and asserting that the scientific proof of the risk of global climate change
was , in his opinion, still not sufficiently valid and that too many countries were not prepared to
share in the global efforts.
True, most developing countries refuse to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that
- the problem was created mostly by developed countries, and
- such commitments would undermine their economic development and impede poverty alleviation.
On the other hand, it can be argued that
- the share of developing countries in global carbon dioxide emissions is rapidly increasing, and
- without developing countries’ cooperation any progress achieved in developed countries could
be offset by “leakages” beyond their borders. For example, an energy-inefficient steel
plant could move its operations to a developing country not covered by an agreement instead of switching
to a more energy-efficient technology. As a result, the global greenhouse gas output could rise in
spite of the Kyoto Protocol implementation.
Developed countries are expected to take the lead in preventing global climate change even though
in less than 20 years developing countries will likely surpass them as the main emitters of carbon
dioxide. But it will take much longer than 20 years for per capita energy consumption in developing
countries to become comparable to that in today’s developed countries. So, in terms of fairness,
today’s poor countries have every right to continue polluting the atmosphere. The real question
is whether it would be wise for them to follow a model of development that has already proven unsustainable?
And is it true that environmental concerns cannot be addressed without impeding poor countries’ economic
growth? An inspiring example is set by China (not a party to the Kyoto Protocol), which in 1996-2000
managed to increase its GDP by 36 percent while still reducing its carbon dioxide emissions, largely
through industrial restructuring and fuel improvements. Many analysts believe that the sooner developing
countries take advantage of cleaner production technologies and more efficient ways of generating and
using energy, the better it will be for their long-term development prospects.
for the sake of fairness, that every person on earth has an equal right to the atmosphere as a resource.
In that case carbon dioxide emission quotas for countries would be determined by population size.
Low-income countries would not yet have reached their quota and would have the right to continue
emitting carbon dioxide. Middle-income countries would have almost reached their quota (if China
with its 21 percent of the world’s population is included among them) or already exceeded it
(if China is counted among low-income countries, as it was till the end of the 1990s). Most important,
high-income countries would have exceeded their quotas almost by a factor of three (compare Figures
2.2 and 14.3).
Will the North-South cooperation work?
The challenge of agreeing on concerted global action in response to the risk of global climate change
is complicated by the fact that the costs and benefits of such action are distributed unevenly among
countries. For example, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), whose members are directly threatened
by the prospect of the rising sea level, has already adopted unilateral carbon abatement measures.
But to most other developing countries, with much higher greenhouse gas emissions, increased burning
of fossil fuels in the course of their industrialization and continued burning of forests for agriculture
appear to be much higher economic and social priorities.
The potential benefits of preventing the global climate change are estimated to be several times greater
for the group of developing countries—avoiding the loss of up to 9 percent of their GDP compared
with 1.0–1.5 percent in developed countries. At the same time the costs of prevention of greenhouse
gas emissions are considerably lower in developing countries as compared with developed, where energy
production and consumption are already relatively efficient and simple improvements are harder to make.
According to some estimates, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1 ton can cost over US$12 in developed
countries, but only US $2-3 in many developing countries, where introducing modern, energy-efficient
technologies (already widely used in high-income economies) can make a big and quick difference. Does
not this mean that developing countries should be more interested in taking action against the global
In fact, low-income countries can rarely afford any long-term planning, and the cost of US$2-3 per
ton of carbon dioxide emissions prevented is still too high for them in the presence of many other
urgent socioeconomic needs. Is there a way to further increase the benefits of climate-friendly programs
for developing countries and to further reduce their costs?
The Prototype Carbon Fund (PCF) established by the World Bank in 1999 with contributions from interested
governments and private companies was a first attempt to deal practically with this task. The underlying
idea is to create a market for trading carbon dioxide emissions reductions between developed countries,
on the one hand, and developing and transition countries, on the other. Developed countries contributing
to the Fund sponsor the introduction of cleaner technologies in the less developed countries, the resulting
emissions reductions are independently verified and certified, and the Fund’s contributors are
then allowed to count these reductions towards their Kyoto Protocol commitments. If this type of deal
becomes widespread, many developing countries may additionally benefit from greater foreign
investment and easier access to modern technologies, while the global problem of climate change
prevention may be solved at a much lower cost.
The very first PCF deal happened to take place with Latvia, as part of the Liepaja Solid Waste Management
Project. This project, financed jointly by the government of Latvia, the city of Liepaja, the World
Bank, the Nordic Investment Bank, and the Swedish International Development Agency, is aimed at replacing
several outdated landfills in the Liepaja region, many of which pose a risk to local groundwater resources,
with a modern regional waste treatment facility. With the PCF contribution, a state-of-the-art energy
cell system will be installed to collect landfill gases produced by decaying waste. These gases, containing
50 percent methane, will then be used to generate electricity and heat. It is expected that, over the
project lifetime of 25 years, an equivalent of about 2 million tons of carbon dioxide will be prevented
from entering the earth’s atmosphere by (1) capturing the methane-containing landfill gases and
(2) substituting this methane for natural gas in generating electricity for Latvia’s power grid.
In addition, the citizens of Liepaja will get a lower-cost, cleaner waste disposal facility using a
minimum of land and sustainable for an indefinitely long time.
At the time of this writing, the Kyoto protocol has been ratified by many countries but still has
not entered into legal force, because these countries represent less than 55 percent of all the 1990
greenhouse gases emissions of developed countries. Meanwhile, the need for action is truly urgent,
given that any longer-term solution to reducing and stabilizing greenhouse gases emissions would require
switching the world to alternative, zero-emission energy sources such as hydro, wind, and solar power.
As of 1999, these sources accounted for only 5 percent of total energy production (mostly hydropower).
Intensified research and development is still needed to make them economically competitive, and even
then it might take 30-50 years more to completely replace the old energy-producing and energy-consuming
stock of equipment and structures. If countries fail to commit to concerted emissions control without
further delay, triggering catastrophic and irreversible climate change might become unavoidable.