by Michael St. John
1/24/01 With the collapse of the Climate Summit in the Hague still casting long shadows over prospects for the control of global pollution, scientists are again warning that failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions, namely carbon dioxide, could cause temperatures to rise by as much as 10.5 degrees over this century. Meeting in Shanghai, China, scientists from 99 nations said the rate of climate change is expected to be greater than it has been over the past 10,000 years.
New evidence shows more clearly than ever that temperature increases are caused mostly by man made pollution, not by changes in the sun or other natural factors, said a report unanimously approved by 150 scientists of the UN affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The new figures for the increase in global warming are more than double what was estimated this fall. Noting the failure of international talks in November to reach an agreement on cutting greenhouse gases, Robert Watson, chairman of IPCC, said, "This adds impetus for governments of the world to live up to their commitments." Talks will resume in May in Bonn, Germany, as governments of industrialized countries attempt once again to work out agreements for cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the next nine years to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels.
During the failed Hague conference, the US, which accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, led an effort to include pollution credits for its forests planted since 1990. The theory being these so-called carbon sinks, forests which absorb carbon dioxide, could reduce the nation's required cuts in emissions. Although an agreement for taking credit for carbon sinks was worked out during a United Nations conference in 1997 many European nations balked when the US announced it was taking pollution credits for 310 million metric tons. The US scaled back its claim to 20 million tons but by then European negotiators had one foot out the door.
Now comes word that scientists say carbon sinks cannot be verified or, worse, are a contradiction given a warming environment. One optimistic theory claimed increases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will actually make trees grow faster, but a recent study of 20,000 forest plots in five eastern states shows no such phenomenon.
A global climate simulation conducted by researchers in England found that forests can actually become a carbon dioxide source instead of a sink. The researchers found that a 5.5 degree Celsius increase in temperatures will increase microbial activity in forests. Over time, soil microbes will give off more carbon dioxide than the trees are taking up. Even in short time scales carbon sinks can vary given such natural events as forest fires where millions of acres can go up in flame releasing tons of carbon dioxide.
During the Clinton administration there was a good deal of strategic negotiating in an effort to find the best deal possible, one that would be accepted by both Congress and the oil and gas industry. Not only was the US pushing for the acceptance of carbon sinks but it was also advocating the purchase of emission credits from other countries who had lost industry since 1990, and negotiators proposed taking credits from countries which had scrapped their inefficient power plants for modern equipment supplied by America. In the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the nation's carbon dioxide emissions increased by 12 percent. In 1999 America used 1.3 percent more fossil fuel than in 1998.
Hopes that the administration of George W. Bush will be more aggressive in meeting the challenges of global warming seem slim to none. Bush, a one time oilman with strong ties to the industry, has let it be known that he would resist giving any US commitments to curbing the burning of fossil fuels. As a way to solve California's energy crisis, President Bush has gone so far as to suggest setting aside some regulations of the 1990 Clean Air Act, measures that were signed into law by his father.
In the Shanghai meeting, scientists warned that droughts could strike farming areas, while melting polar ice and expanding oceans could raise sea levels inundating densely populated coastal areas of China, Egypt and other countries. Ding Yihui, director of the China National Climate Center, said that last year his country suffered its worst drought in decades and grain production fell 10 percent. After the US, China is the second biggest producer of greenhouse gases. Plagued by smog because of its heavy reliance on coal, China has begun a major effort to convert to cleaner fuels.
"The United States is a long way from meeting its targets," said Watson, "A country like China has done more, in my opinion, than a country like the United States to move forward in economic development while remaining environmentally responsible."
Settlement in Third Acid Rain Case
12/26/00 The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced the third billion dollar settlement in landmark litigation to curb air pollution leading to acid rain in the Northeast.
Under the settlement, the Cinergy Corporation of Cincinnati has agreed to spend $1.4 billion over the next 12 years to cut its sulfur dioxide emissions, the main component of acid rain, by 409,000 tons annually. The company must also cut 101,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, install smokestack scrubbers and convert three of its coal burning plants to natural gas within the next 12 years. The company operates 10 coal-burning plants in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
In an earlier settlement following litigation brought by New York and the EPA, a Virginia power company agreed to spend $1.2 billion over 12 years to clean up emissions from its eight coal-fired power plants in Virginia and West Virginia. Settlement was also reached earlier with a Tampa utility.
The federal agency with participation of attorneys general from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had brought court action against nine utilities with 100 power plants im the Midwest in a four-year effort to stem acid-rain that has created dead lakes and dying forests across the mountains of the Northeast.
Carol Browner, administrator of the EPA, said cleaner air will also mean fewer respiratory illnesses and fewer premature deaths. While admitting no wrongdoing, the Cinergy Corporation has agreed to pay $8.5 million in civil penalties and will contribute $21.5 million to environmental projects.
After serving longer in her post than any prior EPA administrator, Browner leaves the position with the changeover to the new presidential administration. Her replacement, NJ Governor Christie Whitman, said the settlement was "one step forward in what will be a decades-long process." President-elect George W. Bush has promised to elevate the administrator's post to cabinet rank.