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Clean energy investments vital, U.N. panel says

To head off the worst of climate change, governments must pour tens of billions of dollars more than they are into clean-energy research and enforce sharp rollbacks in fossil-fuel emissions, an expert scientific panel reported to the United Nations on Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

To head off the worst of climate change, governments must pour tens of billions of dollars more than they are into clean-energy research and enforce sharp rollbacks in fossil-fuel emissions, an expert scientific panel reported to the United Nations on Tuesday.

The U.S. government's research spending, for one, should be "probably tripled or more," a panel leader said.

The group also said the U.N. itself must better prepare to help tens of millions of "environmental refugees," and authorities everywhere should discourage new building on land less than three feet above sea level.

The 166-page report, two years in the making, forecasts a turbulent 21st century of rising seas, spreading drought and disease, weather extremes, and damage to farming, forests, fisheries and other economic areas.

"The challenge of halting climate change is one to which civilization must rise," said the panel of 18 scientists from 11 nations, whose work was conducted at U.N. request and sponsored by the private United Nations Foundation and the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society.

Their dozens of recommendations about what to do to mitigate and adapt to global warming come just three weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an authoritative U.N. network of 2,000 scientists, made headlines with its latest assessment of climate science.

Separately, a powerful group of developing nations on Tuesday said wealthy nations must take responsibility for causing climate change.

While emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are increasing in booming Asian economies like India and China, "most of the environmental degradation that has happened has been historically caused by ... the industrial world," said Munir Akram, Pakistan's U.N. ambassador and chairman of the Group of 77, an organization grouping 132 mainly developing countries and China.

"There is now unfortunately a sort of propaganda effort to try and shift the blame for the environmental degradation on these fast-growing developing economies," Akram told reporters after a meeting of the group at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

The IPCC expressed its greatest confidence yet that global warming is being caused largely by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, mostly from man's burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. If nothing's done, it said, global temperatures could rise as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

'Tipping point' feared
Temperatures rose an average 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. The scientists who produced Tuesday's report said further rises this century should be limited to about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or the world risks crossing a climate "tipping point" that could produce "intolerable impacts on human well-being."

They said global carbon dioxide emissions should be leveled off by 2015-2020, and then cut back to less than one-third that level by 2100 — via a vast transformation of global energy systems, toward greater efficiency, away from fossil fuels and toward biofuels, solar and wind energy and other renewable sources of energy.

That changeover would be spurred by heavy "carbon taxes" or "cap-and-trade" systems, whereby industries' emissions are capped by governments, and more efficient companies can sell unused allowances to less efficient ones.

Such schemes — already in use in Europe under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol climate pact — have been proposed in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress, but are opposed by President Bush's administration, which rejects Kyoto because it does not include developing countries such as China and India.

The pact calls on industrial nations to cut greenhouse gases by an average 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, when the accord expires. However, many countries have failed to meet the targets.

The White House points to spending of almost $3 billion a year on energy-technology research as its major contribution to combating climate change. But the U.N. experts panel said such research worldwide is badly underfunded, and requires a tripling or quadrupling of spending, to $45 billion or $60 billion a year.

The U.S. development effort "is far from proportionate to either the size of the challenge or the size of the opportunities," panel member John Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center, told reporters here Tuesday. Every group that has studied the issue says the U.S. budget should be doubled, tripled or more, he said.

Capturing carbon
Holdren said intensified research and development is needed for carbon capture and sequestration — technology to capture carbon dioxide in power-plant emissions and store it underground. He said billions more also should be devoted to work on cellulose as a biofuel, overcoming the problems of nuclear energy, reducing solar electricity's cost, and other cleaner energy sources.

The experts also urged governments to immediately ban all new coal-fired power plants except those designed for eventual retrofitting of sequestration technology.

Among its wide-ranging list of recommendations, Tuesday's report also called on U.N. agencies to study the need for an internationally accepted definition of "environmental refugee," since treaties recognize only political refugees as eligible for aid from the U.N. refugee agency.

The report expressed "special concern" that international capacity could be overwhelmed by coastal refugees fleeing seas rising as they expand from heat and melted land ice. Scientists estimate a sea-level rise of three feet by 2100 — conceivable in IPCC projections — would displace roughly 130 million people worldwide.

The U.N. panel was led by biodiversity expert Peter H. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden director and past president of Sigma Xi, and University of Michigan ecologist Rosina Bierbaum.

The full report is online at