Why the US is shy

European governments are looking forward to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Although the US wants to follow suit, it has some apprehensions

By Donella H Meadows
Published: Monday 15 December 1997

-- listening to climate change talk in the us and in Europe, I wonder whether we all are living on the same planet.

Several European governments have detailed plans for cutting down their use of fossil fuels (hence emissions of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide) by 15 to 20 per cent by the year 2005.

The us president too has generously offered to get greenhouse gas emissions in the us down to the 1990 level -- twice as high as the per capita European emission level -- by the year 2008 or 2010 or maybe 2012.

European mediapersons do not ask me whether global warming is real. They take seriously the consensus of the 2,400 scientists who participate in the ongoing global forum called the Inter-governmental panel on climate change. They ask "what can be done?" and "why is the us such a laggard on this issue?"

The us reporters seem to be mesmerised by a handful of scientific doubters, most of them funded by coal or oil companies, utilities, or right-wing thinktanks. The doubters point to every uncertainty in climate science, while ignoring the certainties.

Not a scientist in the world doubts that carbon dioxide traps heat or that burning oil, coal, or gases, releases carbon dioxide. No one questions the measurements that show the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide was 270 parts per million (ppm) 100 years ago. It has now increased to 360 ppm.

Europeans pay four times as much for gas as the Americans do. They compete on the global market while driving high-mileage cars and riding attractive, convenient, efficient masstransit systems. Europe subsidises trains and trams; America subsidises highways and parking lots.

Last month at a business conference in Salzburg, European executives were waving around a best-selling German book called Faktor Vier (Factor Four) authored by Ernst Von Weizsacker of the Wuppertal Institute, Germany, and Amory and Hunter Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute, usa . The book shows how an industrial society could get four times as much productivity out of energy and material with known technologies at costs that are not only affordable but probably lower.

That is to say the us could run its economy while reducing its assault on the atmosphere by 75 per cent or double economic output, while cutting emissions to half.

In the us, the Global Climate Information Project (a coalition of business associations) has budgeted $13 million for a public relations blitz to convince Americans that reducing fossil fuel consumption would cause economic collapse.

Europeans, who are exposed to more education and less public relations than Americans, question that claim. It assumes, they point out, that the only way to cut energy use is through massive taxes. It does not count the savings not only from buying less energy, but from having less air pollution, fewer oil spills, better health, less dependency on foreign supplies -- not to mention a more stable climate. It assumes that technology will freeze, rather than shift to greater efficiencies and new energy sources.

The proposed Kyoto treaty, where the emission levels will be decided, will be unfair, us industry says, because it will require the us to sacrifice -- but not Mexico, China, India, or other low-income countries. The Europeans feel that those countries where fossil fuel use per person is a fraction of that in America -- but rising fast -- should be helped not to follow the us 's "wasteful technological path". This, they feel, can be best achieved if the us itself demonstrates the new path.

Before he boldly promised the status quo, Bill Clinton made another speech in which he said the us could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent, tomorrow, with technology that is already available at no cost. He's probably too optimistic about the "tomorrow" part -- it will take a few years -- but not optimistic enough about the 20 per cent. In Europe, they are talking about wasting 20 or 50 or 90 per cent less energy and helping the environment and moving away from the dirty technologies of the past century into the cleaner ones of the next century.

Why on Earth does'nt the us try to beat Europe to it?

Donella H Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, USA.

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