The Heat Is Online

Rx For An Ailing Planet


OP-ED Page, April 22, 2003

Rx for an ailing planet

By Ross Gelbspan,

HE CLIMATE-PROPELLED spread of diseases of humans, animals, and ecosystems constitutes yet another emerging crisis in this period of proliferating crises.

Many of the new and recurring epidemics are fueled by a warming atmosphere, which is accelerating the disappearance of species, spawning weather extremes, and driving shifts in biological systems. Intensifying climate change portends increased mortality from heat, especially in urban areas, more disease from increasing insect populations, destruction of food crops from extreme weather events and pests, and the increasing scarcity of drinking water.

Developing countries are especially vulnerable because they lack resources for coping and for providing adequate health services.

The alarms about the deteriorating health of the planet follow preoccupations about our newfound vulnerability to international terrorism, distortions in our foreign policy from our dependency on oil, and persisting concerns about global economic stagnation. What joins all these challenges is that they may well be susceptible to a common solution -- a rapid worldwide program to rewire the planet with clean energy.

Allowing the climate to restabilize would not solve all these health problems. But if such a global public works program to change the world's energy systems were structured to promote poverty alleviation in the developing world, it would go a long way toward making the world a healthier place.

Climate stabilization, according to more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, requires a worldwide cut of 70 percent in our use of fossil fuels.

Moreover, a properly framed program to rewire the world with clean energy would achieve more than climate stabilization. It would allow developing economies to grow without regard to atmospheric limits and, in many instances, without the budgetary burden of imported oil.

Development economists tell us that every dollar invested in energy in poor countries creates far more jobs and wealth than the same dollar invested in any other sector.

A successful worldwide energy transition could begin to transform impoverished and dependent countries into robust trade partners. Increased living standards in poor countries would provide the resources to strengthen and expand public health services.

Transforming the world's energy system requires bold steps. One policy package -- a set of three interacting strategies -- could reduce emissions by 70 percent while creating millions of jobs, especially in developing countries. The strategies include:

  • Withdrawing government subsidies in industrial nations from fossil fuels and putting equivalent subsidies behind renewable energy sources. The United States spends more than $20 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuels. Industrial countries as a whole spend about $200 billion. If those subsidies were invested in renewable technologies, they would provide the incentive for major oil companies to retool and retrain their workers to become aggressive developers of fuel cells, wind farms, and solar systems. (A portion of these US subsidies would have to be used to retrain or buy out the nation's 50,000 coal miners, but that would leave more than enough money for its intended purpose).
  • *Creating a fund on the order of $300 billion a year to transfer clean energy to developing countries. Virtually all poor countries would love to go solar; virtually none can afford it. The world's most air-polluted cities are in Asia, Latin America, and other developing areas. The money could come from a variety of sources -- a carbon tax in industrial countries, a tax on travel, a small levy on international currency transactions. The fund would be directed specifically to finance wind farms in India, solar assemblies in El Salvador, fuel cell factories in South Africa, and vast solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East.
  • *Incorporating into the Kyoto process a progressively more stringent fossil fuel efficiency standard. Under this standard, every country would begin at its current base line to raise its fossil fuel efficiency by 5 percent a year (i.e., it would produce the same output next year with 5 percent less fossil fuel or produce 5 percent more goods with the same amount of fossil fuel) until the 70 percent reductions were attained. Countries would be able to use verifiable carbon trading as a tool to help achieve the 5 percent annual increase in carbon efficiency.

For the first few years, most nations would meet the progressive annual goal by implementing low-cost -- even profitable -- efficiencies with short payback periods. After the cheap efficiencies were captured, countries would then meet the progressive efficiency goal by deriving increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources. This, in tandem with the fund, would create the mass markets for solar, wind, and hydrogen energy technologies that would bring down their costs and make them economically competitive with fossil fuels.

Under such a plan, the subsidy switch would propel the metamorphosis of oil companies into energy companies. The progressive fossil fuel efficiency standard would harmonize the transformation of national energy structures, create a level field of predictable regulation for the major energy corporations, and jump renewable energy into a global industry. The competition for the new $300 billion-a-year market in clean energy would power the whole process.

It is just possible that an authentic solution to climate change -- one that is appropriate to the scale and urgency of the crisis -- has the potential to begin to create a wealthier, more peaceful and, ultimately, healthier world.

Ross Gelbspan is author of ''The Heat Is On.''

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 4/22/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.