By Bill Scanlon, The Rocky Mountain News
Scientists have vastly underestimated the challenge of reducing greenhouse gases in a world where billions are boosting their carbon footprint, an important new report says.
The report throws ice water on projections that global warming can be slowed as energy efficiency helps poor countries develop in a more sustainable way.
China has a chance to do that. But nations such as Colombia, Argentina and Iran don’t have the wealth to convert to more efficient energy, even as their economies grow and their citizens demand more electricity and cars, says the report from Colorado atmospheric researchers.
The study by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado is expected to be a hot topic of discussion at this week’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland.
“We always knew that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was going to be a challenge, but now it looks like we underestimated the magnitude of this problem,” said Patricia Romero Lankao, an NCAR sociologist who is the lead author of the study in this month’s journal Climate Research.
“There is simply no evidence that developing countries will somehow become wealthier and be in a position to install more environmentally friendly technologies.”
Technologically advanced nations such as the United States are under pressure to reduce their per capita emissions of fossil fuels. Developing nations are being urged to adopt cleaner technology.
Both goals will be very difficult to achieve, the authors say.
Poor countries are producing more and exporting more, but they’re not gaining enough wealth to convert to energy-efficient technologies, they say.
Consequently, the developing world is pumping more fossil fuels into the atmosphere as more people can afford energy-consuming goods for the first time.
And energy efficiency in technologically advanced nations isn’t coming close to balancing out the extra fossil fuels emanating from poor countries, the report says.
In fact, despite gains in energy efficiency, the developed world also is increasing its greenhouse gas output, said Lankao, who is with NCAR’s Institute for the Study of Society and the Environment.
Their economic growth is outstripping increases in efficiency as demand for more cars, larger houses and other goods keeps bumping up carbon dioxide emissions.
The goods demanded by the advanced nations often come from the Third World, where factories belch dirty coal.
Citizens of the poorer nations aren’t driving SUVs, but they are burning and logging their forests, which contribute to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
“These countries are just now at the stage the United States was at at the beginning of the last century,” Lankao said. “They still have very energy-intense industries. The cement industry, for example, is moving from the U.S. and Europe to China and the developing nations.”
The current economic slowdown could make things worse, because with demand slipping for oil, and prices plunging, there is no longer an incentive to develop solar, wind and alternative energies that could help developing countries bypass their sooty coal eras, she said.
Researchers divided the world into three types of nations — technologically advanced ones such as the United States, the “have nots” such as Tanzania and Botswana, and the “have somes,” such as India and Thailand.
They found that the advanced nations comprise a sixth of the world’s population but account for 52 percent of energy consumption.
The have-nots, representing a third of the world’s population, consume only 2.8 percent of the energy.
In between are the crucial “have some” nations, which comprise about half the world’s population and use about 45 percent of the consumed energy.
In the 1990s, global emissions of greenhouse gases grew at a rate of 1.3 percent a year, the report said.
Between 2000 and 2006, that rate multiplied to 3.3 percent a year.
The authors examined population, wealth and the ratio emissions to unit of gross domestic product.
They found that the economic disparity between the haves and have nots has grown since 1960 and is likely to grow for at least two more decades.
The authors predict that even as the poor nations grow somewhat wealthier by producing more goods for the developed world, there will continue to be a hierarchy among nations.
The poor nations will adopt more environmentally friendly means to produce products, but at a much slower rate than projected by the International Panel on Climate Change, the group that won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The brightest hopes the authors see are the initiatives by cities around the world to impose emission restrictions, and the prospect that the Obama administration will push for a national strategy to develop green energies.
“We see prospects for hope, but we need to go deeper and go faster,” Lankao said.