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DEVELOPMENT: U.S. Key to Balanced Carbon Budget, UN Says

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 27 2007 (IPS) - Calls for profound change in the environmental behaviour of the United States are on the rise as world leaders prepare to attend a major summit on climate change in Bali, Indonesia next month.

"The U.S. has a unique responsibility to &#39climate proof&#39 its growth, not only to protect Americans, but also to prevent reversals in health and education for the world&#39s poor," said the authors of a major U.N. report released Tuesday.

The 2007 Human Development Report, entitled "Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World", urged the United States to "take the lead" in balancing the global carbon budget by cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Despite the fact that it is responsible for about 25 percent of carbon emissions, which play a significant role in global warming, the United States is the only nation in the industrialised world that continues to reject global calls for mandatory cuts in carbon emissions.

Until last week, Australia was the only other industrialised country that sided with Washington on the issue of climate change. Canberra has now taken a different position, with the new government declaring that it would set targets for cuts in carbon emissions.

As the world&#39s largest polluter, the United States has consistently argued that legally-binding cuts in carbon emissions would hurt the U.S. economy and that the best way to address the issue of climate change is to adopt voluntary measures.


This approach, according to many international scientists and economists, including those associated with the U.N., is not only hindering global efforts to fight climate change, but also poses serious risk to economic and social development in poor countries.

"Climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole," said Kemal Dervis, head of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) that prepared the annual report, adding that it could cause serious setbacks to the efforts for economic and social development in poor countries.

The authors of the U.N. report warned the industrialised countries that failure on their part to take drastic measures against global warming now would lead to disastrous consequences not only for the developing countries, but for them too.

There is a very "narrow window to act", they said in the report, adding, "if that window is missed," a potential increase in temperatures of up to four degrees C. could see no less than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa go hungry.

Not just that, they said. Within the next 10 years, more than 200 million people in the region will have no homes and another 400 million no protection against dangerous diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, according to the report.

"The carbon budget of the 21st century is being overspent and threatens to run out entirely by 2032," said Kevin Watkins, the study&#39s lead author, referring to the possibility that emissions levels could rise up to the critical level of four degrees C., if not checked in time.

Like many other researchers, Watkins has no doubt in his mind that it&#39s the world&#39s poor who are going to suffer the most from the effects of global warming, even though "their carbon footprint is the lightest" compared to the rich.

Calling the poor "the first victims of the developed countries&#39 energy rich lifestyle," he said in a statement: "If people in the developing world had generated per capita CO2 emissions at the same level as people in North America, we would need the atmosphere of nine planets to deal with the consequences."

According to the UNDP report, the 19 million residents of New York State have a bigger carbon footprint than the 766 million people living in the world&#39s 50 least developed countries.

"An average air-conditioning unit in Florida emits more CO2 in a year than a person in Afghanistan or Cambodia during his or her lifetime," the authors said.

A study released this month by the Centre for Global Development, a Washington-based independent think tank, revealed that on average, each individual in the U.S. is responsible for about nine tonnes of emissions every year.

The reports sets out a checklist for U.S. officials as they prepare for the Bali Conference, which will decide what further actions need to be taken after the Kyoto treaty expires in 2002.

The U.S. has refused to endorse the treaty and has given no indication as yet of its willingness to go along with the rest of the world in forging a new pact to fight climate change.

The Kyoto treaty requires five percent cuts in carbon emissions below the 1990 levels until 2012. The U.N. report calls for the U.S. to agree on at least a 30 percent reduction by 2030 against the base line.

In addition, the U.N. experts on development also want the U.S. to invest and promote the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) and commit to increased usage of renewable energy sources.

However, mitigation alone is not enough. The report concludes that even the most stringent cuts "will not start to have a major impact" until the mid-2030 and that temperatures will continue to rise through 2050.

The report criticised the U.S. for its reliance on coal-fired power plants to meet energy needs, as these plants are a leading source of source of carbon emissions.

The U.S. is considering proposals to build over 150 coal-fired power plants, with a planned investment of 145 billion dollars over the next two decades.

The current U.S. strategy on mitigating the impact of climate change is based on reducing greenhouse gas "intensity", not the level of emissions, a unilateralist approach that many experts see as deeply flawed.

The term "intensity" refers to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP). The report says that greenhouse gas intensity has fallen in the U.S. by 25 percent since 1990, but, at the same time, its total carbon emission have also risen by 25 percent.

Considering that the U.S. and other industrialised countries enjoy ample financial resources and advanced technologies to defend themselves against the disastrous effects of warming, the report reflects its authors&#39 grave concern about the fate of the millions of poor in developing countries.

In the low-lying Netherlands, for example, with official help, people are preparing for flooding. They are building homes with foundations like the hull of a ship that can float on water, according to the report. Yet in the Mekong delta in Vietnam, locals are left to adapt with swimming lessons and lifejackets.

"Leaving the world&#39s poor to sink or swim with their own meagre resources in the face of the threat posed by climate change is morally wrong," wrote Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African spiritual leader and human rights activist, in the 384-page report on human development.

"We are drifting in a world of adaptation apartheid," he said.

The report urges the United States to support a new global annual investment of 86 billion dollars for adaptation efforts to build "climate-proof" infrastructure and other measures to protect the poor in developing countries.

The required amount is equivalent to 0.2 percent of the Northern countries combined GDP.

 
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