The New Utopia, Keeping the World As It Is

VIENNA - Utopias have always inspired humankind -- from the defence of enlightenment against religious fanaticism during the Middle Ages, to reconstruction after last century's wars, to the end of colonialism.

Those were imperious, even grandiloquent utopias, corresponding to the excesses of the times. A new utopia is a conservative, apparently modest one -- a titanic, nonetheless: keep the world as it is, environmentally speaking.

This utopia's deceptively modest demands have been made clear again in Vienna this week at the new UN conference on global warming to prepare for the next global round of talks due in Bali, Indonesia, in December.

This utopia's goals sounds uninspiring bureaucratic: reduce greenhouse gases emissions by 50 percent by the middle of this century relative to 1990 levels in order to limit average temperature rises to less than two degrees Celsius by 2050. Otherwise, many scientists say, the environmental, social, and economic consequences of global warming would transform earth into an inhabitable place.

While government officials, scientists and environmental experts gathered at the Vienna International Centre to discuss how market measures can transform capping greenhouse gas emissions into commercially attractive tools, representatives from developing countries were making clear what global warming actually means.

"Each year hurricanes in the Caribbean become stronger and stronger," said Eduardo Reyes, deputy director of Panama's Environmental National Authority. "And each time the economic losses caused by them are higher and higher." Stronger hurricanes are considered by several scientists to be a consequence of global warming.

Reyes told IPS that the world has become aware of the consequences of environmental catastrophes provoked by global warming because insurance payments do not match real economic losses.

"The hurricane Katrina of August 2005 provoked economic losses of some 126 billion dollars, but the insurances only paid 60 billion," Reyes said.

The scenario ahead could get more difficult in many ways.

"In the debates on global warming, a maximum average rise of global temperature of two degrees by 2050 is considered as acceptable, and is officially given as a target to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system," Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said.

"But such qualifications are highly subjective. Such an increase in global temperatures might well provoke a sea level rise enough to make some South Pacific atoll islands disappear." Such as Tuvalu, the tiny Pacific archipelago of nine atolls and reefs, with the highest point just five metres above sea level.

Small island developing states (SIDS) like Tuvalu are extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change and to rising sea levels. The SIDS are 51 countries which together produce less than one percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

But, while for the SIDS and other nations in the developing world, whatever happens on the global warming front in the industrialised countries is of existential importance, in European and North American capitals decisions are being made on the basis of returns on investment.

"Whatever the targets on global warming and greenhouse gases emissions reductions are, what we need are the lowest cost solutions," says Bill Kyte, advisor on sustainable development and climate change at the European electricity provider EON.

At the same time, Kyte warned that reluctance from policy makers in the industrialised world to set the framework within which new technology investments are to be decided would increase the difficulties of coping with global warming.

Kyte referred specifically to energy generation. "Some 1.5 billion people in the developing world alone do not have electricity," he told IPS. "We certainly need a new energy sources mix, from renewable sources to nuclear power, that is carbon free, to attain the targets of halving GHG emissions by 2050, and to satisfy the world's energy demands."

Environmentally wrong investment decisions such as power plants fuelled with coal "would create new technology with a lifetime of 30 to 40 years, locking capital in and creating new sources of emissions," he said.

The utopia here is to create a new energy sector that is carbon free, and can readily meet needs for economic growth.

Kyte said that practically all technologies needed for halving emissions are already available, and that there is no time for developing new ones. "New inventions need a long time to become feasible, and we are running out of natural and human resources, such as engineers, steel, and energy itself, to conceive them."

Scientists have estimated that without fundamental changes in the global environmental policy, carbon emissions would double by 2050, raising its concentration in the atmosphere from some 300 parts per million (ppm) today, to almost 1,000 ppm in 2060. This would increase global warming significantly.

In order to avoid such a concentration, "we have to avoid emitting the equivalent seven to eight billion tonnes during the next 50 years. This is a titanic task," Kyte told IPS.

"For instance, to avoid emitting one billion tonnes of carbon, the world would have to double the present nuclear energy generation from 700 gigawatts, or multiply by 700 the present solar energy installed capacity, or multiply by seven the present world crops to produce bio fuels."

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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