Global warming, the $18 quadrillion question
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- With solutions costing up to a mind-numbing $18,000,000,000,000,000, 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 at $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 U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) run to just hundreds of trillions of dollars over 100 years -- a relative pin prick 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 U.N.'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 United States 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 $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 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified by the United States, 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 United States 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 told Reuters:
"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. Skeptics 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.
Rising sea levels could inundate some Pacific islands and ports around the world while a warmer climate may cause deserts, flooding, storms and drive many species to extinction.
"We're on the way towards causing dangerous climate change," said Steven Guilbeault of the environmental group Greenpeace. "We should act now before it's too late."
The IPCC says all but one scenario for climate costs -- the $18 quadrillion tag -- would cut world GDP by 1 percent or less by 2050. "It has negligible impacts on the projected economic growth," the IPCC said in a report this month.
Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.
And the scenarios do not gauge benefits of averted climate change -- like the possibility of not having to build Dutch-style dykes -- nor examine short-cut solutions such as sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying it.
Even if fully implemented, Kyoto would be of little help. It would cut global temperatures by only 0.15 degrees Celsius (0.3 degrees Fahrenheit) by limiting emissions of gases like carbon dioxide -- a fraction of a forecast of a global temperature rise of 1.4-5.8 Celsius by 2100.
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