Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Global warming -- the quadrillion dollar question

By Alister Doyle  /  REUTERS , MOSCOW

With solutions costing up to a mind-numbing US$18,000 trillion, it is among the most expensive questions in history -- "How do you stop people from causing dangerous global warming?"

Eighteen quadrillion dollars is almost 600 times the 2002 world gross domestic product, estimated by the World Bank, of US$32 trillion. If you glued 18 quadrillion dollar bills end to end, they would stretch way past Pluto.

Luckily, most estimates of the costs of curbing global warming by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) run to just hundreds of trillions of dollars over 100 years -- a relative pinprick for a growing world economy.

But the costs of cleaning up human emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide produced by factories and cars, and of shifting towards cleaner energies such as solar or wind power, are starting to give governments nightmares.

"The long-term costs could be enormous," said Andrei Illarionov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed away from previous promises to quickly ratify the UN's Kyoto Protocol on curbing global warming.

Kyoto, a tiny first step towards reining in human emissions of non-toxic carbon dioxide from fossil fuels blamed for blanketing the planet and driving up temperatures, will collapse without Russia's approval. The US pulled out in 2001.

"Maybe the money would be better spent on promoting economic growth, on ending poverty or on helping developing nations," he told a climate conference in Moscow this month, pointing to the highest IPCC estimate of almost US$18 quadrillion by 2100.

Bush says Kyoto costs too much

Beyond Kyoto, which runs to 2012, climate experts say quadrillions of dollars in the 21st century may hang on interpretations of the word "dangerous."

At root is the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified by the US, which aims for "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human) interference with the climate system."

A heat wave in Europe this year killed about 15,000 people in France. About 1,300 died in a heat wave in India. There were 562 tornadoes in the US in May, more than any month on record. Was any of that caused by humans and "dangerous"?

If so, humanity would have to start slashing the use of the fossil fuels, a backbone of the world economy from coal-fired power plants and steel mills to trucks and cars.

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri said the meaning of "dangerous" was largely a value judgment and up to governments to define. But he also said: "Scientifically, one can ask ... whether the extent of sea level rise which has taken place, the damage to coral reefs, changes in precipitation levels and impacts on water availability in different parts of the world are not enough reasons for decision makers to decide what is dangerous."

The IPCC, representing a consensus among scientists, said in 2001 there was "new and stronger evidence" that people were behind global warming. Sceptics say shifts in solar radiation, for instance, might explain rising temperatures.

President George W. Bush argues that Kyoto is too expensive and unfairly excludes developing countries. Another 119 countries have ratified the treaty and fear that inaction could bring even more catastrophic costs.

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