New Internationalist

Simply… Cooling The Greenhouse

Issue 206

new internationalist
issue 206 - April 1990

[image, unknown] COOLING THE GREENHOUSE

Illustration: Jim Needle

It is the year 2050. The earth has survived the worst of global
warming but people look back on the twentieth century which created
the problem as a kind of madness which must never be repeated.

Welcome friends to the Global Warming Theme Park, sponsored by the UN Centre on Climate Change and Atmospheric Pollution (UNCCCAP). After decades of intense negotiations, global greenhouse-gas emissions have finally stabilized - the threat of catastrophic climate change appears to have passed. The exhibits here tell the story of how humans won their greatest victory - over themselves.

1. I hope you're all feeling comfortable. It is hot today, but it would have been hotter if we hadn't done something about the global warming caused by gases like carbon dioxide (C02).

Our story begins with the car. Back at the end of the last century cities all over the world were choking with cars. In Western countries cars pumped out a third of all the CO2. So they had to be banned from all downtown city centres and laws were passed requiring all new cars to average at least 90 miles per gallon. A new fuel-tax increase was used to subsidize public transport - people could travel free on buses, commuter trains and trains. Special cycling lanes were established; thousands of car parks and filling stations were demolished and grass and trees planted in their place. Slowly but surely, city air lost its yellow-brown haze - with less exhaust belching from hungry engines, people began to breathe a little easier. Let's move on to the next sensurround experience - be sure to keep your helmets on tight.

 

2. Cars were only the first problem: another third of all CO2 came from coal-burning power stations. All the big power companies were projecting steady increases in electricity demand. 'If global warming means we can't build coal-burning plants, we'll just have to go with nuclear,' they said. After the terrible disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island this began to look like a choice between two nightmares. Finally, some creative energy analysts began to penetrate the bureaucratic fog. They argued that instead of generating more electricity every time demand increased, people had to look at how it was actually used. Saving energy by using it more efficiently was actually like a new source.

 

3. Any remaining scepticism about global warming changed with the weather calamities of the mid-1990s. Three years of drought in the US and Canadian wheat belt threw the grain market into turmoil. Wheat exports dropped to nil and food riots erupted throughout Africa, the Middle and the Soviet Union. Drought also parched Australia and southern Africa while fierce tropical storms caused widespread flooding in China, India and Bangladesh. That's when UNCCCAP was mandated to bring the global community together and find ways of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. By the year 2000 most nations were scared enough to co-operate. Let's move on.

 

Illustration: Jim Needle 4. The first realization was that the world's environment is interdependent. The second was that industrial nations were responsible for most greenhouse-gas emissions. And third was that poor nations needed to escape the debt trap before they could protect the environment. Negotiations were long and sometimes acrimonious but Western governments and banks finally agreed to write off all Third World loans. In return countries like Brazil and Indonesia tried to combat the cuffing and burning of their rainforests. Hold on tight as we enter the tunnel.

 

5. By this time the 'green' vote was so strong that most industrial nations had ambitious tree-planting schemes. It was common knowledge that trees remove CO2 from the air - the average tree sucks up about four kilograms a year. Millions of trees were planted on marginal lands and on newly cut forest land that had been abandoned. There was also a complete ban on the export or import of tropical hardwoods unless it was from approved forest reserves managed by local residents. This, together with brave efforts at land reform, finally stopped the destruction of tropical rainforests.

Illustration: Jim Needle
6. What really helped us turn the corner on CO2 emissions was the 'Carbon Tax' that UNCCCAP helped hammer out nearly 40 years ago. Fossil fuels were taxed according to the amount of CO2 they produced. And the tax was on a sliding scale: big per-capita users like Canada and Australia still pay more than countries like Zaire or India. This touched off a stampede of investment and research into renewable energy sources - that's probably the main reason fossil-fuel consumption has now plunged to 1950 levels and solar power-heated homes and offices are so common.

 

7. Everyone had to contribute 20 per cent of their total carbon taxes to a Third World Atmosphere Fund. The Fund is still going: money is loaned interest-free to help poor nations pay for renewable energy sources. It was the Atmosphere Fund, combined with technical assistance from the West, that really convinced the Third World it would not have to sacrifice economic development. Without the Fund, China would still be burning millions of tons of coal and Brazil's tropical forests would be long gone. Most countries also tried to help the people who were hit hardest by the tax, especially those in fossil-fuel industries who lost their jobs.

 

Illustration: Jim Needle 8. The global surge in 'green consciousness' eventually moved people to question the sacred cow of industrial society - economic growth. Public pressure forced governments everywhere to intervene in the marketplace. Companies had to prove their products were socially useful and did not squander non-renewable resources. Some consumers began to boycott overpackaged goods; others practised 'guerilla shopping' - simply dumping waste packaging in the store. No wonder the amount of garbage has dropped by half in the last 50 years and nearly 90 per cent of that is recycled.

So global warming is now under control, but sadly the problem hasn't gone away. We've still got the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s to deal with, when the world community was still dithering. Anyway, it's a success story of sorts.

OK now, you've got a half-hour lunch break then it's back in the capsule, which will take you on to the Museum of Animal Diversity containing lifelike robotic recreations of all the amazing species which we didn't manage to save.

Have a nice day.

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