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Bjorn Lomborg On The Rio Green Summit: Poverty Pollutes

The upcoming United Nations green summit in Rio de Janeiro is in trouble—and with good reason. The planners of the mammoth event have been unable to agree on just what to say in the outcome document, ironically called “The Future We Want.” This week, dignitaries are meeting in New York City for a final attempt to find common ground.

It won’t be easy. Over the past four decades, the U.N.’s concern for “green” issues has moved ever closer to the fashionable concerns of rich Westerners and away from the legitimate concerns of the overwhelming majority of the earth’s people.

It wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, the first U.N. environmental conference in Stockholm helped to crystallize the global need for sound environmental policy. Over the next 20 years, however, the emphasis became much more driven by Western concerns. Whereas Stockholm had been a conference on the “Human Environment,” the theme of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was “Environment and Development”—and development took the back seat.

This summer, 20 years further on, dignitaries from around the world are again heading for Rio, and development has almost entirely slid off the negotiating table. While paying lip service to goals such as poverty eradication, Rio+20 (as the gathering is known in U.N. parlance) will focus on “sustainability.” It’s a word that used to be about human needs. The classic U.N. definition, published in the world body’s 1987 Brundtland report, put it this way: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But today the term is code for global warming and similar concerns. In a remarkably honest Reuters interview, Brazil’s chief Rio+20 negotiator, Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago, says the summit’s “sustainable” branding is deliberate: “Sustainable development is an easier sell globally than climate change, even though sustainable development is a way of tackling global warming and other environmental issues.”

Global warming is real. Burning fossil fuels produces CO2, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet. The consequences of this can be either positive or negative, depending on where you live. It will result in more deaths from excessive heat, but fewer caused by cold. In Canada, Denmark, and Russia, moderate global warming is likely to be an overall improvement, whereas in the tropics even a small temperature rise will probably be negative. Toward the end of this century, the overall impact will be mostly negative.

The trouble is that almost every aspect of modern civilization is powered by fossil fuels. How can we expect the world to give them up without a cheaper alternative? Consider the 1992 Rio summit’s biggest outcome: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Rio approach to global warming was typical U.N.: let’s negotiate a treaty with aspirational language and see if it might solve an intractable problem.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t.

The Kyoto Protocol basically asked developed nations to cut CO2 emissions, either by reducing energy consumption or by using more expensive, greener energy. Economic models show that a full implementation of the Kyoto agreement would have cost the world an estimated $180 billion a year in lost GDP growth. Yet the benefit would be an immeasurable temperature reduction of just 0.004 degrees Celsius (0.008 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Predictably, most countries either rejected the treaty or made changes that were barely noticeable. The abatement in CO2 emissions has been minuscule. Even the European Union, the treaty’s most enthusiastic supporter, has simply shifted much of its industrial production (and the resulting greenhouse-gas generation) to countries not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, like China.

Nevertheless, the U.N. approach has remained the same ever since, through the catastrophic 2009 Copenhagen meeting and last year’s meaningless follow-up gathering in Durban, South Africa. The same aspirational language will be rehashed in Rio.

We hear plenty of hype about climate-change “solutions” like solar panels and biofuels, but these green technologies are not yet the answer. As long as wind turbines and solar panels remain more expensive than fossil fuels while working only intermittently, they will never contribute much to our energy supply. Germany, the world’s largest per capita consumer of solar energy, produces just 0.3 percent of its energy this way. And to achieve this No. 1 status, the country has paid $130 billion for $12 billion worth of energy. The net reduction in CO2 emissions will slow the pace of global warming just 23 hours by the end of the century.

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