By Alister Doyle and Gerard Wynn (Thu Dec 4, 2008 10:16am EST), POZNAN, Poland (Reuters)
Most experts expect the downturn will dent a 3 percent a year rise in world emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels. But one scientist said a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s would mean them falling by 35 percent.
“What we’re seeing in a number of countries is slower growth rather than a decline,” Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, told Reuters at the December 1-12 talks on a new climate treaty due to be agreed at the end of 2009.
“It would be a pretty depressing way to make progress, to find that recession was helping the world to kick an addiction to burning fossil fuels that spur rising greenhouse gases.”
Many experts say that emissions in developing nations, such as China and India, are likely to keep rising and more than offset any falls in developed countries.
But opinions are divided.
Terry Barker, director of the Center for Climate Change Mitigation Research at Cambridge University said carbon emissions fell 35 percent from 1929 to 1932 during the Great Depression.
“I think there’s a chance it could fall by more than that by 2012,” he said. “The leading indicators are falling like a stone,” he added, referring to oil and European carbon prices.
Lower energy demand has contributed to an oil price crash to 30.96€ a barrel on Thursday fr98.92€om in July — and that may discourage a shift to greener lifestyles. Motorists may drive more, and in aging, more polluting cars because they cannot afford new ones.
“It affects both directions so it’s very difficult to work out the total effect,” said Jos Olivier, emissions scientist at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
Global emissions of greenhouse gases have surged by about 50 percent since 1970 and under current trends are expected to rise by almost half again by 2030. A U.N. climate panel says they should peak by 2015 to avert the worst of global warming.
The U.N. Environment Program has urged the world to use the economic slowdown to shift to a “Green New Deal,” inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s drive to create jobs in the Great Depression. But a change in lifestyles is harder.
“Typically what you see is that after four or five years the (emissions) trend rebuilds back to where it was originally,” said Bill Hare of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “We don’t also, from the economic side, expect to see a long-term change in consumption,” he said.
Harlan Watson, head of the U.S. delegation in Poznan, said U.S. emissions tended to rebound after falls in recessions. “Except in very few instances, our reductions in emissions have been associated with recessions,” he said.
He said California showed there were some hopes for a shift to greener lifestyles — when electricity prices spiked in 2000-01 in a crisis with rolling blackouts, people cut back and continued with lower energy use even after prices declined.
“It does demand a change of behavior and sometimes it sticks even if prices fall,” he said.
Recessions tend to be temporary like big volcanic eruptions that eject dust that can briefly dim the sun worldwide and so offset global warming, scientists say.
Any emissions slowdown “is all temporary, it’s a blip in the rising curve,” said Bert Metz of the European Climate Foundation who was a leader of a U.N. Climate Panel report in 2007.
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