Reducing Global Warming: Clearer Goals
Air Date: Week of January 31, 1997
Steve Curwood speaks with representatives from two of the leading industrialized nations about their plans to stem greenhouse gas emissions. The first guest is U.S. Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth. Following is a conversation with John Gummer, Great Britain's Secretary of State for the Environment.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In late February, diplomats from around the world will gather in Bonn, Germany, to continue negotiations about what should be done to fend off global warming and avert climate change. By the end of the year the parties hope to reach an agreement on limiting the emission of gases known to trap the sun's heat, including carbon dioxide. The present treaty to limit so-called greenhouse gases that was signed in Rio in 1992 has proved to be largely unsuccessful. Only 2 industrial nations, Great Britain and Germany, will meet that agreement's voluntary goals. The United States is the biggest single human source of carbon dioxide, so there is special concern that the US has fallen far short of its promises. In response, the Clinton Administration has drafted a plan that it would like to see adopted during the climate change negotiations. And joining us now to discuss that plan is Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, Timothy Wirth. Secretary Wirth, in your view, how much reduction in greenhouse gases is needed to stabilize the climate?
WIRTH: I think what we have to do, Steve, is work backwards from the issue of how much concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is acceptable. That really isn't known.
CURWOOD: Without a specific milestone, though, how can we really judge the success of any particular treaty?
WIRTH: Well it's very, that's a very good question, so we're taking it one step at a time. We believe that it's important for the world to have what we would call a binding treaty. So far, all of the efforts that came out of Rio were non-binding. We're trying to get the world to agree that there have to be major reductions in activities done by the developing world, so there are a number of elements preliminary to determining exactly what the level of greenhouse gases ought to be.
CURWOOD: At a minimum, what do you think we should do?
WIRTH: Well, at a minimum I think that we in the United States ought to seek to at least stabilize our emissions of greenhouse gases. And it would be my guess that we want to try to have that done some time early in the 21st century, in the year revolving around the year 2010, 2015, something like that.
CURWOOD: Now, in this next plan, do you think we should have higher prices for energy?
WIRTH: Well, I think that we're not going to get into any kind of a taxing regime. My hunch is that we're going to end up with a kind of cap on greenhouse gases, and that will then allow a kind of trading to occur. That will have to be accompanied by the ability of the developed world to work with the developing world. If, for example, it would cost us in the United States $100 to limit a ton of carbon dioxide, but you could limit a ton in China for $5, it's obviously much more cost effective to limit that ton of carbon in China.
CURWOOD: In shorthand we're talking about essentially paying the Chinese not to use their coal reserves?
WIRTH: What we're saying to them, it's, they're going to be building a lot of power plants in the future. We're saying to them, you build these power plants, but we would like to work with you in terms of making them as clean and as modern as possible.
CURWOOD: What impact would these reductions have on the workers and consumers in the United States, do you think?
WIRTH: Well, it can be a net positive, again, if we do it right. If you think of the turn of the century before, people were developing better horse blankets and were developing better saddles and were developing better wagons. And suddenly the automobile came along. You know part of my family in Cleveland was in the horse blanket making business and they went out of business. There are going to be displacements and changes, but ultimately, the automobile developed a much broader employment base, and its potential, if we do it right in the 21st century, for a great deal of new technologies to come in that provide a more modern job base and one that reflects the ultimate imperative of climate change.
CURWOOD: Tim Wirth is Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. Thanks for joining us.
WIRTH: Nice to be with you, Steve.
CURWOOD: One of the countries that stands a good chance of meeting its obligations under the 1992 climate change treaty is Great Britain. Joining us now from the BBC studios in London to discuss how it's able to do this, and Britain's position on the current climate change negotiations, is Great Britain's Secretary of State for the Environment John Gummer. Mr. Gummer, just a few months ago you were criticizing the US position in the climate change negotiations that had called for implementing binding restrictions in the year 2010. What do you think now of Washington's latest proposal?
GUMMER: Well, I think the problem is that although I welcome the United States' positive suggestions, the fact is that these targets need to be absolutely clear to everybody. Unless the United States can say we are going to commit ourselves to reduce greenhouse gases in the United States by 10% by the year 2010 I don't believe we'll begin to get others on our side.
CURWOOD: You're saying that we should reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by the year 2010, 10% below what we were doing in 1990?
GUMMER: That's right. That is what the United Kingdom is prepared to do.
CURWOOD: Is the United Kingdom willing to go along with Washington's proposal to allow countries to buy and sell emission credits?
GUMMER: Well, we are not opposed to emission credits. Indeed, I have proposed a very large-scale operation in Europe. The only thing we say to the United States is that this has got to be foolproof. It's got to be real. And it can't be a substitute for a real change in the United States. The United States cannot go on being a country which wastes more energy than any other known nation on Earth. I mean after all, for us Europeans coming to the United States, we find this incredible thing, that during the summer you have to put your coat on because it's so cold in every air conditioned office. And during the winter, you have to take your coat off because it's so hot. Just a slight change in the level of air conditioning, which would be more comfortable for everybody, can make a huge difference. The stopping of subsidies on fossil fuels. Our first step was to stop the subsidies on coal and other fossil fuels. You could introduce more competition into energy markets. The home of free enterprise could do that. And you would find that has a huge effect. You could look at increasing road fuel duties. Do you know, we do it. Every year, by 5% ahead of the rise in the cost of living. And the result of that is that our cars are becoming more and more efficient, better users of gasoline, and of course therefore much less emitters of the greenhouse gases.
CURWOOD: Do you think Washington is really paying attention to this issue?
GUMMER: I believe that many people in Washington would like it all to go away. So they really hope that the funded lobby groups who try to distort and change the science backed by the American coal and oil industry, they'd love that to be true. But increasingly they recognize that science shows quite clearly that climate change is happening. And therefore they are beginning to take notice. And I must say, I just wish that many of those, particularly those like myself on the right, who believe in the word "conservative," were to remember that conservative means to conserve. To hand on to the next generation at least as good a world as we've got, and which is certainly better for the future.
CURWOOD: John Gummer is British Secretary of State for the Environment. He spoke to us from the BBC studios in London. Thank you, sir.
GUMMER: Thank you.
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