United Nations says voluntary emissions reduction schemes working

Voluntary actions by industry, governments and organisations are leading to small but significant reductions in emissions of global warming gases worldwide, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Energy Council (WEC) say.

The organisations say that the findings challenge the widely-held belief that the stalling of the UN Climate Change Convention talks in The Hague last year and political disagreements over the science and the need for legally binding reduction targets have paralysed the world-wide effort to fight global warming.

Studies by the WEC indicate that the number of new clean energy schemes, government initiatives and renewable energy projects will, by 2005, save the equivalent of one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. This equates to a saving of over 3% in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the year 2000. However, the figure of one billion tonnes may be a dramatic understatement as a survey of 91 countries indicates the actual level of additional projects planned or in the pipeline could raise the global C02 savings to as high as 2 billion tonnes by 2005 or 6% of current global greenhouse gas emissions.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said the pessimism and gloom hanging over the UN Climate Change Convention talks, which are set to resume in Bonn on 18 July, had masked small but real progress towards reducing emissions. He highlighted the progress with the achievements made in China, which produces 14% of world CO2 emissions (see related story). “China has, despite economic growth estimated at 36%, managed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 17% since 1996/97. The figure of 17% may prove premature, with the real reduction likely to be in the range of 10 or 12%, but this is still remarkable and encouraging progress,” Topfer said. “It has been achieved by an active effort to promote energy conservation, end coal subsidies and support more efficient coal-fire power generation.”

A study by scientists at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California concludes that China’s CO2 emissions are already 400 to 900 million tonnes below what was expected in 2000 which is approximately equivalent to all CO2 emissions from Canada, at the low end of the range, or Germany, at the high end of the estimate.

In the United States, which at 23% has the highest share of global CO2 emissions, levels of the greenhouse gas have grown from 4.8 billion tonnes in 1990 to over 5.4 tonnes in 1998, the
International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimate. But even in the United States improvements are being made, according to official statistics, the organisations said, with the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP or economic growth declining by 11% between1990 and 1998.

“The fact that two of the most important countries at the centre of the global warming debate are acting, and are managing to break the link between growth and a parallel rise in emissions, offers
an important glimmer of hope which must be built on,” said Toepfer.

UNEP said that in many countries like China, old and inefficient power generation equipment is being replaced by more efficient plants, with investment in energy infrastructure estimated at US$15 trillion over the next 20 years. Current CO2 savings are coming from over 600 projects registered in the WEC’s database, the organisation says which include the replacement of old and inefficient power plants, fitting existing power plants with energy efficient equipment and renewables schemes. Other projects also include some tree-planting schemes designed to soak up CO2, energy conservation measures and some, such as those in
Belgium, to reduce car use and emissions by restricting motor vehicle access to city centres.

“There is a generally held perception that little is happening globally to tackle climate change and that little will occur unless nations reach agreement at the upcoming talks in Bonn,” commented Elena Virkkala Nekhaev, WEC’s Manager of Programmes. “But this is far from the case as our Pilot Programme on GHG [greenhouse gas] Emissions Reduction demonstrates. Indeed the sheer number of cleaner energy schemes planned and in the pipeline make us confident that two gigatonnes, or 6% of global emissions of CO2, will be saved annually by such projects by 2005 whether or not the Kyoto Protocol is ratified.”

However, new statistics from the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration appear to contradict the information that UNEP and WEC used for their US analysis. According to the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) which said that US CO2 emissions from fossil fuels rose by 2.7% in 2000, the highest since before 1992. The rise was attributed to a return to normal weather patterns, decreased hydroelectric power generation replaced by fossil fuels and strong economic growth at 5% last year.

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