Getting the world's fractious nations to agree to a programof remedial measures sounds extremely difficult, but Stephen Schneider seessigns that it may not be impossible. Schneider was one of more than 300 delegatesfrom 48 countries who attended the International Conference on the ChangingAtmosphere, which took place in Toronto,coincidentally, just a week after Hansen's congressional testimony. It was,says Schneider, the "Woodstock of CO2" (an obvious reference to the"Woodstock of Physics" meeting held last year, during which news ofthe high-temperature superconductors exploded into the public consciousness).
The meeting was the first large-scale attempt to bridge thegap between scientists and policymakers on a wide range of atmospheric problems,including not just the greenhouse effect but also acid rain and the depletionof the protective layer of ozone in the stratosphere. Four days of floordebates, panel discussions, and closed-door sessions produced an ambitiousmanifesto calling for, among other things, the following:
• A 20percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by industrialized nations by theyear 2005, using a combination of conservation efforts and reduced consumptionof fossil fuels. A 50 percent cut would eventually be needed to stabilize atmosphericcarbon dioxide.
• A switchfrom coal or oil to other fuels. Burning natural gas, for example, produceshalf as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy as burning coal.
• Much morefunding for development of solar power, wind power, geothermal power, and thelike, and efforts to develop safe nuclear power.
• Drasticreductions in deforestation, and encouragement of forest replanting and restoration.<
• Thelabeling of products whose manufacture does not harm the environment.
• Nearlycomplete elimination of the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, by the year2000.
Of all the anti-greenhouse measures, the last should proveeasiest to achieve. Although CFCs are extremely persistent, remaining in theupper atmosphere for decades, and although they are 10,000 times moreefficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, the process of controlling themhas been under way for years, for reasons having nothing to do with thegreenhouse effect. Since the early 1970s atmospheric scientists have knownthat CFCs could have destructive effects on ozone. CFCs were banned from spraycans in the United Statesand Canada in the late1970s, and the appearance of a "hole" in the ozone layer over Antarctica in the early 1980s created an internationalconsensus that CFCs must go. Last year 53 nations crafted an agreement thatwill cut CFC production by 50 percent over the next decade; the chemicals maywell be banned altogether by the turn of the century.
CFCs are a special case, however. Since they are entirelyman-made, and since substitutes are available or under development, control isstraightforward. "There are only thirty-eight companies worldwide thatproduce CFCs," says Pieter Winsemius, former minister of the environmentof the Netherlands."You can put them all in one room; you can talk to them. But you can't dothat with the producers of carbon dioxide— all the world's utilities andindustries."
Also, there is a lack of basic information on the flow ofcarbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases into and out of the atmosphereand biosphere. Just as one example, there is no good estimate of how muchcarbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are produced by fires, both man-madeand naturally occurring. "We need to better assess global biomass burningas a source of greenhouse gases," says Joel Levine of the NASA LangleyResearch Centerin Hampton, Virginia. "We have to understand whatwe're actually doing when we burn tropical forests and when we burnagricultural stubble after harvest. We don't know on a global basis what thecontribution is."
Remarkably, the conference spurred some specific promisesfrom political leaders rather than just vague platitudes. Standing before a40-foot-wide photorealist painting of a cloud-studded skyscape, prime ministersBrian Mulroney of Canada andGro Harlem Brundtland of Norway pledged that their countries will slow fossilfuel use and forgive some Third World debt,allowing developing countries to grow in a sustainable way. Says Schneider,"In the fifteen years that I've been trying to convince people of theseriousness of the greenhouse effect, this is the first time I've seen a broadconsensus: First, there is a consensus that action is not premature. Second, that solutions have to occur on a globalas well as a national scale."
In the end, the greatest obstacle facing those who aretrying to slow the output of greenhouse gases is the fundamental and pervasivenature of the human activities that are causing the problem: deforestation,industrialization, energy production. As populations boom, productivity mustkeep up. And even as the developed nations of the world cut back on fossilfuel use, there will be no justifiable way to prevent the Third World from expanding its use of coal and oil. How can thedeveloped countries expect that China, for example, which has plansto double its coal production in the next 15 years in order to spur development,will be willing or even able to change course?
And then there is poverty, which contributes to the greenhouseeffect by encouraging destruction of forests. "Approximately seventy-fivepercent of the deforestation occurring in the world today is accounted for bylandless people in a desperate search for food," says Jose Lutzenberger,director of the Gala Foundation, an influential Brazilian environmental group.Commercial logging accounts for just 15 percent of tropical forest lossworldwide. Unfortunately for the atmosphere and the forests themselves, workingout an agreement with the tropical timber industry will be far easier thaneliminating rural poverty.
Industrialized nations, which created most of the greenhouseproblem, should lead the way to finding solutions, says State Departmentofficial Richard Benedick, who represented the United States during negotiationsfor cuts in CFCs and who was a conference attendee. The first priority, hesays, should be strong conservation efforts—an area in which the United States lags far behind such countries as Japan. Theeffect of such measures, Benedick feels, can only be positive and the cost isnot great. "Certain things make sense on their own merits," he says.Technology can be transferred to developing countries. In some Third World nations a partial solution can be as simpleas modernizing energy production and distribution. Upgrading India'selectric-power distribution system, Benedick says, could double the effectiveenergy output of existing coal-fired power plants.
Addressing the conference, Canadian minister of energyMarcel Masse noted that there is cause for optimism. One need look no furtherthan the energy crisis of a decade ago. From 1979 to 1985, thanks primarily toconservation, substantial cuts were made in the use of fossil fuels byindustrialized nations. Only since 1986 and the current oil glut, said Masse,has there been a resurgence in oil use and coal burning.
Michael McElroy concluded, "If we choose to take onthis challenge, it appears that we can slow the rate of change substantially,giving us time to develop mechanisms so that the cost to society and thedamage to ecosystems can be minimized. We could alternatively close our eyes,hope for the best, and pay the cost when the bill comes due."