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British report says unchecked global warming will devastate world economy

LONDON  — Raising the stakes in the global warming dispute with the United States and China, Britain issued a sweeping report Monday warning that the Earth faces a calamity on the scale of the world wars and the Great Depression unless urgent action is taken.
    The British government also hired former Vice President Al Gore, who has emerged as a powerful environmental spokesman since losing the 2000 presidential election, to advise it on climate change — a clear indication of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s growing dissatisfaction with U.S. environmental policy.
    The 700-page report argues that environmentalism and economic growth can go hand in hand in the battle against global warming. But it also says that if no action is taken, rising sea levels, heavier floods and more intense droughts could displace 200 million people by the middle of the century.
    The report said unabated climate change would eventually cost the equivalent of between 5 percent and 20 percent of global gross domestic product each year. The report by Sir Nicholas Stern, a senior government economist, represents a huge contrast to the U.S. government’s wait-and-see policies.
    Blair called for ‘‘bold and decisive action’’ to cut carbon emissions and stem the worst of the temperature rise.
    Stern said acting now to cut greenhouse gas emissions would cost about 1 percent of global GDP each year. ‘‘The benefits of strong, early action considerably outweigh the costs,’’ he said. ‘‘We can grow and be green.’’
    Blair, Stern and Treasury chief Gordon Brown, who commissioned the report, emphasized that the battle against global warming can only succeed with the cooperation of major countries such as the United States and China.
    President Bush kept the United States — by far the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming — out of the Kyoto international treaty to reduce greenhouse gases, saying the pact would harm the U.S. economy.
    Blair, Bush’s top ally in the Iraq war, has indicated U.S. policies on climate change are unacceptable.
    Kristen A. Hellmer, deputy director for communications at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said Bush ‘‘has long recognized that climate change is a serious issue, and he has committed the U.S. to advancing and investing in the new technologies to help address this problem.’’
    The United States, she said, ‘‘is well on track to meet the president’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas intensity of our economy 18 percent by 2012.’’
    Asked about hiring Gore, Hellmer said: ‘‘They can hire whoever they want.’’
    Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va., praised the report for trying to measure the cost of action and inaction against global warming.
    ‘‘Economic assessments are inexact sciences, but they are used all the time in setting insurance rates and government regulation of highway safety, pollution control and food safety. They are projections of what the risks are and the benefits of averting those risks.’’
    Blair signed an agreement this year with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to develop technologies to combat the problem. The measure imposed the first emissions cap in the United States on utilities, refineries and manufacturing plants in a bid to curb the gases that scientists blame for warming the Earth.
    The Stern report praised states such as California for developing their own objectives and policy frameworks regarding the battle against global warming.
    At a news conference, Stern said U.S. cooperation is vital, and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she would advise the Bush administration that climate change is an ‘‘urgent issue that has to be tackled.’’
    But Blair and the report also said that no matter what Britain, the United States and Japan do, the battle cannot succeed without deciding when and how to control greenhouse gas emissions by such fast-industrializing giants as China and India.
    ‘‘Britain is more than playing its part. But it is 2 percent of worldwide emissions. Close down all, all of Britain’s emissions and in less than two years just the growth in China’s emissions would wipe out the difference,’’ Blair said.
    The Stern report said at current trends, average global temperatures will rise by 3.6 degrees to 5.4 degrees within the next 50 years or so, and the Earth will experience several degrees more of warming if emissions continue to grow.
    It said such warming can have severe impact, including melting glaciers, rising sea levels, declining crop yields, drinking water shortages, higher death tolls from malnutrition and heat stress, and widespread outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever. Developing countries often would be the hardest hit.
    Many major cities could be at risk of flooding from coastal surges, including New York, Miami, London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Buenos Aires, the study said.
    Stern’s report said ‘‘ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth.’’
    ‘‘Our actions over the coming decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century,’’ it said.
    ‘‘Using the results from formal economic models, the review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 percent of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20 percent of GDP or more,’’ it said.
    The report acknowledged its predictions regarding GDP used calculations that had to rely on sparse or nonexistent observational data about high temperatures and developing countries, and to place monetary values on human health and the environment, ‘‘which is conceptually, ethically and empirically very difficult.’’
    Stern said the world must shift to a ‘‘low-carbon global economy’’ through measures including taxation, regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon trading.
    In a world where fossil fuels provide about 80 percent of the energy supply, he recommended a halt to deforestation, technology aimed at clean power, heat and transportation and developing ways to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions.
    The British government is considering new taxes on cheap airline flights, fuel and high-emission vehicles. It also announced legislation that would set a goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.
    Under the Kyoto accord, 35 industrialized nations committed to reducing emissions by an average 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
    Britain is one of only a few industrialized nations whose greenhouse gas emissions have fallen in the last 15 years, the United Nations said. It said Germany’s emissions dropped 17 percent between 1990 and 2004, Britain’s by 14 percent and France’s by almost 1 percent.
    Overall, there was a 2.4 percent rise in emissions by 41 industrialized nations from 2000 to 2004, mostly because former Soviet-bloc countries increased emissions by 4.1 percent.
    Stern is scheduled to discuss his report next week at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Kenya.

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