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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (UNU, 1989, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSustaining the Earth
View the documentAnticipating global trends: Aspects of UNU work for the period 1990-1995
View the document'An uncontrolled global experiment...'
View the document'A little breathing space': Report from the Budapest
View the documentEnergy savings: Sooner much better than later
View the document'The rich get richer...'
View the documentOld wine in new bottles?
View the documentTectonics of the desert cities
View the documentMan in the mangroves
View the documentDiverting the Nile
View the documentLosing the soils of Africa
View the documentIn fairness to the future

'A little breathing space': Report from the Budapest

Of the many ways in which human activity today may be making the future untenable those actions creating the so-called "greenhouse effect" could be the most disturbing. By our activities - in industry, in agriculture and elsewhere - which have, over the last century or so, sharply increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we could be altering some of the most basic circulatory systems of our home body, the Earth. This could, conceivably, result in whole new zones of agricultural fertility (and infertility) around the globe, warmer climates, and an attendant rise in the level of the seas, and otherwise dramatic changes to the face of our planet. But where does the responsibility for doing something about this lie? Is it shared equally by all of humankind - or do certain societies bear a heavier part of the tab? These are the kinds of social questions being asked by the human dimensions of global change programme. One of its initial efforts was an international workshop on carbon dioxide emission reduction strategies (subtitled "A Little Breathing Space"). It took place in Budapest in April 1989, under the joint sponsorship of the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study, the International Social Science Council and the UNU, and was hosted by the Institute for World Economy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The following is excerpted from a preliminary report* on the workshop. - Editor

* The report was prepared from rapporteurs' notes by workshop participants David B. Brooks, R.K. Pachauri, John Robinson, Peter Timmerman and Ralph Torrie.

The prospect of global climate warning, linked to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" that result from human activities, presents the global community with an unprecedented challenge. Foremost in this challenge is the need for partnerships between developed and developing countries on actions to reduce the causes and thus avoid or reduce adverse consequences of climate change. On the one hand, there must be agreement on living within an overall global limit on emissions in order to stabilize climate. On the other, each nation will have to plan its own response within that limit, and these responses will involve both burdens and opportunities that will inevitably fall differently on different nations.

However, the burdens and opportunities from the response to the global climate change must not be allowed to fall unjustly. Not only do most current greenhouse gas emissions originate in the industrialized nations, but the cumulative emissions from these same countries over the past century now impose severe limitations on development options for other nations. The developed nations must, therefore, bear a larger share of the burdens, and be willing to share the opportunities - and not merely by passive action.

The International Workshop on Carbon Dioxide Emission Reduction Strategies: A Little Breathing Space focused not on the. climatological, biological and geological issues, which are the concern of the parallel International Geosphere/ Biosphere Programme (IGBP), but on the psychological, social, economic and cultural aspects of global change. The main purposes of the workshop were to define some of the policy options and to develop a research agenda for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Energy analysts, about one-third from developing countries, participated in the workshop; most of the participants had extensive experience in the analysis of energy alternatives.

The workshop agreed to focus on the target of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2005, which had been set out as a first step at the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in June 1988. This agreement was coupled with three caveats: First, the target cannot be applied across the board to all nations, and in particular cannot be applied equally to developed and developing nations.

Second, it was recognized that the Toronto target was not based on any optimization strategy or analysis of what would be needed to avoid specific adverse effects. Indeed, recent evidence has led many scientists to conclude that the 20 per cent target is too low and too late. Nevertheless, given that the information to derive a "rational" target does not yet exist, and that the need for control of carbon emissions has gathered considerable political strength, the 20 per cent reduction represents a useful point of departure for analysis of the human dimensions of both action and inaction.

Third, it was also recognized that the effects of other gases in the upper atmosphere contribute to the greenhouse effect. However, reductions in carbon dioxide emissions were seen as an important first step in efforts towards climate stabilization. Not only is carbon dioxide the most important of these gases in terms of volume, but it also is subject to significant control by appropriate responses in both developed and developing countries. These responses involve mainly energy policy and forest management. Still, it should be recognized that focus on carbon dioxide to the exclusion of the other greenhouse gases is unlikely to achieve ultimate objectives.

Globally, about three-fourths of the carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activities are traceable to the burning of fossil fuels - for heating, transportation and electrical generation. The workshop participants agreed that increased energy efficiency therefore offers the single greatest technical and economic potential for reducing these emissions. In meeting the 20 per cent target, it was agreed, efficiency gains can and should play a greater role than attempts to switch to other fuels.

Therefore, it was urgent that policies and programmes to implement greater energy efficiency should be expanded in both developed and developing nations. At the present time, however, there exist significant political, institutional and social barriers to the achievement of greater energy efficiency, even in those very large number of cases where it is clearly cost-efficient. These barriers must be addressed if the efficiency savings, and the ensuing environmental benefits, are to be realized.

Increased energy efficiency alone will not, however, be enough to deal with global climate warming. Substantial scope also exists for new and renewable sources of energy to substitute for fossil fuels. In addition, about one-fourth of global carbon dioxide emissions stem from loss of the "green cover" on the Earth's surface. Measures to promote afforestation, reverse deforestation and stimulate intensive organic agriculture could make an important contribution to bringing the greenhouse effect under control.

More broadly, from the overall perspective of energy use and development, it was concluded that the developed countries, which have cumulatively contributed to the great bulk of excess carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, must now bear the major burden of corrective action. Any attempts to impose specific carbon dioxide quotas and restrictions on developing countries would not only be morally wrong but counter-productive. Accordingly, the developed countries should immediately: (1) take vigorous measures to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions beyond the 20 per cent target of the Toronto declaration; (2) assist the developing countries in acquiring the knowledge, technology and capital required to adjust policies and infrastructures toward less carbon-intensive energy systems and more carbon-fixing forestry and agricultural practices.


Policy changes of the order necessary are not going to be easy. As one workshop participant remarked: "Policy may be rational, but politics is not." Soft energy path advocates have been more successful at creating persuasive policy analyses than at carrying those analyses forward to political action.

Fortunately, many of the actions and policies that the workshop can recommend offer short-term economic benefits. To the extent that energy efficiency measures are cost-effective - and a great many are - they are desirable on their own terms. Given the large scientific uncertainties surrounding the degree and timing of global warming, this cost-effectiveness is an important advantage. In addition, in most cases those same actions and policies are exactly what would be dictated by the goal of sustainable development.

The highest priority in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the developed nations will involve a reduction in the fossil fuel intensity of their national economies. This is something that can be most effectively and efficiently accomplished through improvement in energy efficiency, in each sector of the economy. But while energy efficiency improvements have by far the largest and most important role to play in the industrial nations, other elements for responding to global warming could include the deployment of renewable energy resources, fuel switching (from more to less carbon intensive sources), adoption of organic agricultural production and reforestation over large areas.

Developed countries bear an additional responsibility - to ensure that their aid and trade policies promote sustainable development. They must avoid congratulating themselves if reductions in carbon emissions reflect nothing but structural change resulting from the export of carbon-generating industries to other countries. More fundamentally, developed nations must ensure that their own trade policies, or their own insistence on debt repayment, are not stimulating the creation of "carbon havens," or forcing developing nations onto non-sustainable development paths where forests are sacrificed for hard currency.

Developing countries share with the more industrialized countries the goal of stabilizing the global climate. It should be recognized that actions or steps effective in reducing the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions will also support the objective of sustainable development. Initially at least, the developing countries will have to continue expanding the amount of energy available for their citizens and for industrial development - and much of this energy will have to be in the form of fossil fuel. But this only makes their efforts towards improved energy efficiency and their greater use of renewable sources that much more important. Studies have shown that developing nations can achieve high quality of life and standard of living at much lower levels of energy intensity than is typical of developed countries - provided that the energy is supplied in high-quality forms and is consumed efficiently.

Moreover, in many developing countries, the chief cause of carbon emissions is agricultural and forestry practices (the reverse of the situation in the wealthier nations, where the energy sector is the chief offender). From this it follows that the developing countries must accord very high priority to changing forestry and agricultural policies, reversing incentives that promote today's non-sustainable practices. Developing countries, workshop participants agreed, need to set in motion a reappraisal of strategies aimed at shifting to more sustainable development paths. However, such strategies can only be undertaken by local institutions and organizations, which underlines in particular the essential importance of strengthening local scientific capabilities through international assistance.