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Global warming: more can be done

Staff Reports

Back in 1992, I was in Rio de Janeiro reviewing preparations for the Earth Summit that led to 150 countries agreeing to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention led in turn to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 that set “greenhouse gases” emissions targets for 34 industrial countries. We had to wait, however, until last month for the Kyoto Protocol to enter into force, as this was conditional on the ratification countries accounting for at least 55 percent of developed country emissions in 1990. While President Clinton signed the Protocol in 1998, President Bush subsequently rejected it in 2001 on the grounds that the science was uncertain and that the targets could be costly to the U.S. economy.To address global warming, the Protocol sets binding targets for developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on average 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. While this is a worthy objective, there is a fatal flaw: the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, are free to pollute as much as ever. China (population 1.3 billion) is already the world’s second largest air polluter, and India (population 1 billion) is growing fast. The US (population 290 million) is not bound by the Protocol and has seen greenhouse gas emissions increase roughly 12 percent between 1990 and 2001; these are projected to increase another 12 percent by 2012.While there are many who scoff at the “science” of global warming, there is plenty of scientific evidence that tells us that human activities are causing climate change and that it could have very serious consequences if we don’t do something about it. An analysis, by University of California’s Naomi Oreskes, of all 928 peer-reviewed climate studies published between 1993 and 2003 found that not one disagreed with the general scientific consensus position on climate change.So, how much should we in the Vail/Eagle Valley worry about this situation? Over the past 50 years, the western US climate has warmed on average by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and climate models predict a further increase of 3.6 to 12.6 degrees by the end of the century. We have all seen Lake Dillon drying up in recent years and know that snowpack provides up to 75 percent of the region’s annual water supply. Increases in global temperatures could decrease this snowpack by as much as 40 percent by 2060, resulting in a decrease in the total water supply both locally and regionally, with drier summers and worse droughts. Many parts of the West have already experienced devastating multi-year droughts and global warming may cause similar drought-like conditions in the future.Since 1992, the United States has instituted a number of programs, including voluntary greenhouse gas mitigation programs and research and development and energy policies that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy. President Bush has said: “Emerging technologies such as hydrogen powered vehicles, electricity from renewable energy sources and clean coal technology will encourage economic growth that is environmentally responsible By researching, by developing, by promoting new technologies across the world, all nations, including the developing countries, can advance economically while slowing the growth in global greenhouse gases and avoid pollutants that undermine public health.”This may sound like a reasonable approach, but where is the political will to cut down the unnecessarily high levels of pollution from vehicle emissions? Over 40 percent of the oil we use in this country goes into our cars and trucks. Improving miles per gallon of gas lowers carbon dioxide levels, so increasing vehicle fuel efficiency is a major step that we can take to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and the threat of global warming.But, instead of an overall increase in fuel efficiency, we have had a dramatic growth in SUVs, from less than two percent market share of the overall new light-duty vehicle market in 1975 to over 25 percent of the market now. New SUVs are estimated to average 17.9 mpg, whereas cars average 24.6 mpg. But, between 1975 and 2004, the market share for new passenger cars and station wagons dropped from 81 to 52 percent.In 1975 Congress passed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to reduce our dangerous oil dependence and these standards doubled the fuel economy of America’s vehicle fleet, saving 3 million barrels of oil per day.We still consume over 20.5 million barrels of oil per day, much of which is imported. But, it is feasible with the use of hybrid technology to raise the average for cars to 45 mpg and SUVs to 34 mpg, which would save 3 million barrels of oil per day. This would have a beneficial impact on our balance of payments, decrease our over-reliance on foreign oil, and play a part in controlling adverse climate change. If we will not join the rest of the world in the Kyoto process, we could at least do this. VTPeter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on UN issues are on the web site of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears periodically in the Vail Trail.


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