Warning: Global Warming

Time to move away from continued dependence on fossil fuels

Economic and geopolitical interests are converging on the Caspian Sea region. Nations are vying to protect their interests. Corporations are striking deals and forming alliances. Fortune seekers are assembling. And this in a region that not long ago received little international attention.

So why now? Because of the discovery of vast new fossil fuel reserves in the Caspian Sea and surrounding countries. If further explorations uncover additional reserves, this region may rival the Middle East in importance as a supplier of oil to the world.

Yet, in the midst of all this, the world is being forced to focus on the more challenging issue of global warming. There are now concerns that the economic turmoil of the 1970s will pale in comparison with the potential economic and social consequences of the gradual warming of Earth's surface. Those include erratic weather patterns, the threat of rising sea levels, increased flooding, shifts in agricultural production, fresh-water shortages, increased desertification, and spread of tropical diseases. Although difficult to estimate, the costs associated with such disruptions would be immense.

Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, new scientific studies linking the increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses to global warming have given rise to a new sense of urgency. Much of the projected increase in energy demand will come from the rapidly growing economies of the developing world. If these countries follow the path of the industrialized nations and invest primarily in fossil fuel generation technologies, world carbon dioxide emission rates could soar.

Many critics of the ongoing negotiations to reach a binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, expected to be signed in Kyoto, Japan, this month, have seized on this issue. In Congress and elsewhere, these critics have framed the issue as one of equity. Exempting developing countries from the same emissions standards as other nations, they say, would place businesses from industrialized countries at a competitive disadvantage.

Leaders from developing countries contend that an agreement to safeguard the global environment that would limit their prospects for economic growth is unacceptable. And surely it can hardly be characterized as equitable to require developing nations to shoulder much of the burden for the industrial world's environmentally destructive practices over the past century.

Yet, global warming gives us little choice but to move away from a continued dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and coal for future economic development. The Montreal Protocol, signed I0 years ago, offers some guidance on finding a global solution.

Following the 1985 discovery of a "hole" almost the size of the US in the ozone layer over Antarctica, the world community moved quickly to reach an agreement to reduce and eventually end production of ozone-depleting substances. When several developing countries were reluctant to sign, negotiators agreed to set up a fund to help businesses in developing countries adopt alternatives to ozone-depleting substances.

The result: More than 150 nations signed the Montreal Protocol. By 1995, world production of chloroflourocarbons, the most harmful ozone-depleting substances, had dropped 76 percent from a high in 1988.

Few if any of the predictions of economic distress by opponents of the Montreal Protocol have come true. Businesses quickly adapted, stepping up research and development, investing in new technologies, and capitalizing on new business opportunities.

We must move forward as decisively on energy. Oil will continue to play a central role in our economies for the foreseeable future. But we must vigorously promote efficiency measures that will allow us to more than double the amount of energy obtained from the same input of oil, while cutting pollution drastically.

We must also make sure that alternatives to coal and oil - natural gas, solar and wind power, advanced fuel cells, and biomass technology, among others - gain an increasing share of the world energy market.

The discovery of new fossil fuel reserves in the Caspian Sea region is welcome news to many. But ultimately it may be the last hurrah of an old game. As global warming changes the rules, economic security will no longer be a question of securing a steady supply of raw materials exerted from Earth's crust. Instead, our prospects for future progress will depend on our ability to develop and maintain energy systems that do not cause harm to our environment.

* Anders Wijkman is assistant secretary general of the United Nations and assistant administrator and policy director of the United Nations Development Program.

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