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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Solutions

Air Date: Week of

Professor Moomaw joins Steve Curwood in the Living on Earth studio. (Photo: Ian Gray)

Representatives from over 150 countries from around the world recently met in Bangkok to hash out details of the fourth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report offers solutions to tackle human-induced global warming--everything from increasing efficiency to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood speaks with Bill Moomaw, who served as lead author on the third IPCC report.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Every five or six years since 1990 the United Nations has pulled together a panel of more than a thousand scientists from around the world to assess the state of global warming. After marathon meetings this past week in Bangkok to thrash out a summary, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just issued the third and final part of its 2007 assessment.

The first two sections looked at basic science and the coping abilities of civilization and nature in the face of impacts ranging from storms and rising sea levels to severe drought and vanishing ice. This final section covers mitigation—things that we could do to slow or halt the warming. Bill Moomaw is a chemist and a professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University. He is one of the key authors of the mitigation report and joins us now. Hello sir.

MOOMAW: Hello, thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: So give me the basics here on mitigation. We’ve heard the science of climate change. We heard about how the planet can adapt to all this, what’s going to happen to people. And now we’re focusing on mitigation, that is what could be done to stop this process before it becomes inevitable. Why is this the most controversial?

MOOMAW: I think it’s the most controversial because it gets closest to questions of economics and policy. And therefore, first of all, if you think about the science even though there’s been a little fuss over the science it’s much easier to demonstrate whether the science is right or not by doing another measurement going out and doing another experiment. The greatest uncertainty is not in how climate will change, the greatest uncertainty is what we’ll do about it and whatever actions we take what their impact will be.

Professor Bill Moomaw (Photo: Ian Gray)

So do we do a carbon tax? Do we raise the price of fossil fuels? Do we put a cap and trade system in place? Do we mandate that we capture carbon dioxide and store it in the ground or do we put in incentives to do that? Those are all alternatives. And do we put in place more nuclear power? Obviously a controversial topic but it’s covered in the report as to what role it might play in reducing our future emissions.

CURWOOD: Now the basis of this report was already written quite some time ago. What was all in contention in these last few days leading up to the final release of the report?

MOOMAW: What’s really in contention here is the language, how things are stated and which items are emphasized. The interesting thing about the summary for policy makers which was debated in Bangkok is this is the only piece that the governments have control over. This is their document. The draft is prepared by technical people but then it’s really their document. So for example China wanted to be sure there was a statement in there that developed countries were responsible for the majority of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. That apparently went through fairly easily because it’s true. You know you turn to the technical people and say, “is this true?” And the answer is, “yes it’s true.” So we can put that in.

There may be some things more contentious. Some countries may not want to see as strong a statement about nuclear power because they’re worried about nuclear proliferation or something of that sort. So they’ll want to maybe tone down what they see as too strong a statement. In order for it to get into the summary for policy makers though the technical people, those of us who toil in the trenches on this, who are there in Bangkok have to agree that it is consistent with the underlying science and analysis that’s in the report.

CURWOOD: I’m looking at the summary for policy makers from this and I see a variety of targets that are set for where we need to maintain a stable emissions if we want to avert some of the catastrophes that have been predicted by a rapid climate change in which are referred to in some of the other parts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. What’s the right target here?

MOOMAW: Well, the right target is actually, that is really a political decision and not a scientific one. I mean how much pain we’re willing to tolerate is going to be a political decision. We’re going to say governments are going to decide individually and collectively on a target. What we do is say, “ok, what happens if we go from our current level of say 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide plus 100 parts per million equivalent of other gases up to 650 parts per million. And what would it cost to hold it at or below that level by the year 2100?” And then we do the same thing for 550 and 450 and so forth. Now in the previous report the lowest analysis that was done was for 550 parts per million which is a lot. It’s about double pre-industrial levels. The reason that was in there was because the economists all said, “oh it will be too costly to do anything more than that, any greater reductions than that.” The science that has come in since then suggests that 550 would be pretty devastating. And the cost of damage would be higher than were estimated in the 2001 report.

Professor Moomaw joins Steve Curwood in the Living on Earth studio. (Photo: Ian Gray)

CURWOOD: So, what kind of world would we have at 450?

MOOMAW: At 450 we’re on the edge. And 450 is interesting. The way these are done, because there are all kinds of still some uncertainties, the 450 number says the way these probabilities are calculated that means there’s a one chance in two, 50 percent probability, that the temperature would rise by less than four degrees Fahrenheit.

CURWOOD: So 50-50 would be able to keep the planet the way we sort of have it?

MOOMAW: It would be recognizable. It would still be recognizable.

CURWOOD: At 550 and 650 parts per million the earth would not be recognizable?

MOOMAW: I think certainly the natural systems around us have changed dramatically. The agricultural systems are severely changed and in areas like Africa, devastation.

CURWOOD: So what kind of solutions are necessary to implement the goal of keeping global CO2 equivalent emission below 450 parts per million and what does the report say?

MOOMAW: Ok. What the report says is that there are three basic things that have to be done. We have to use the energy that we’re using much more efficiently. And then it goes through literally hundreds of things that can be done in buildings and industry and electric power generation and agriculture and just every aspect of our lives. That is the first thing. It’s the cheapest thing to do. We also, by the way, this report looks not only at the levels in the technologies and the strategies and the policies that might get us there but it looks at the potential costs. So there are cost figures in there.

Secondly, if we really are serious about staying down at 450 in addition to all the efficiency gains- which are substantial- we have to go to some zero emitting electric power generation sources. And that means taking a very strong look at nuclear power and all the renewables: wind and solar and geothermal and all those things, biomass done right, which is a very important caveat.

And the final thing is looked at is if we’re going to continue using coal and natural gas we need to capture the carbon dioxide and store it under ground or possibly in the oceans although that has some other issues associated with it.

CURWOOD: So what are the most promising technologies out there that aren’t being currently used on a large-scale commercial basis?

MOOMAW: Well, certainly from the point of view of efficiency the low hanging fruit is buildings. Buildings use vastly more energy than they need to. I’m actually building a home right now which uses 1/5 the energy of a new code-built house in Massachusetts to begin with. It’s doable. It’s affordable and we just need to get on with doing it.

CURWOOD: So, how do the reports issued by the IPCC help put pressure on policy makers?

MOOMAW: It’s very interesting. The first report came out in 1990 and in 1992 there was the UN framework convention on climate change that was adopted by the nations of the world and George Bush the first signed it and brought it back and had it ratified by the Senate. The 1995 report was issued and in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was enacted. In 2001 the third report came out and that put pressure on a number of countries to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which finally was successfully done when Russia ratified even though the United States did not.

CURWOOD: And now this fourth report?

MOOMAW: And now this fourth report comes at an opportune time because under the Kyoto Protocol this is the year, 2007, when we must begin negotiating what happens after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end. And so this is laying out for governments: What do we know about the science? How bad is climate change? How bad is it going to get? What are the impacts? What adaptation needs to be done? And what are the mitigation options that are available to us?

CURWOOD: Bill Moomaw is professor of international environmental policy and directs the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University. Thank you so much sir.

MOOMAW: Thank you for having me.

[MUSIC: Max Richter “Organum” from ‘The Blue Notebooks’ (Fat Cat Records – 2004)]

CURWOOD: You can find a link to the full report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on our website, loe.org. Some advocates say one way to cut emissions without cutting up the economy is to ask the marketplace to find the cheapest options.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the brisk trading of carbon emission rights now underway in Europe.

REDSHAW: For example, we’ve worked with a Scandinavian paper mill. As they’ve made themselves more efficient, they’ve got emissions credits left to sell. And we’ve sold those to a UK utility, which has found that with the high gas prices they want to burn more coal. And as a consequence, we’ve put together two people who wouldn’t ordinarily speak to each other. Because a UK utility is not going to be talking to Scandinavian paper mills.

CURWOOD: Europe trades carbon, next week on Living on Earth. Right now here’s this weeks note on emerging science from Megan Vigeant.



Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


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