Carbon Emissions: A View from Britain

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The Bush administration and the U.S. Senate this week are hearing different opinions on climate change. Sir Nicholas Stern, an economic adviser to the British government, offers his views.


Now we hear from two men who are here in Washington this week trying to get business, government, and individuals to act on the issue of climate change.

Jim Rogers is the CEO of Duke Energy. It's one of the largest energy companies in the U.S. Along with nine other large American firms, he's been talking to policymakers about creating regulation to reduce greenhouse gases. We'll hear from him in a few minutes.

First, we'll talk to Sir Nicholas Stern. He's an economic adviser to the British government and the man who the government tapped to study impact of climate change. The result was the Stern Review, which was published late last year. Nicholas Stern has said that unchecked climate change could cause economic disruption on the scale of the Great Depression. To keep this from happening, he says carbon emissions have to be reduced dramatically and immediately.

Sir NICHOLAS STERN (Author, The Stern Review): People are realizing now the urgency of the situation. If we leave it very much longer, we're going to end up in a position where it's extremely difficult to hold the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to tolerable levels. The later we leave it, the more difficult the adjustments will be, the bigger the cost we have to bear.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get to your talks. You've been on Capitol Hill this week and you've been meeting with Bush administration officials. Is your message for the United States?

Sir STERN: It's for everybody. And we've come to the United States this week. We've been going around the world trying to discuss the problems, and share our findings, and talk to people about the possible ways forward because different countries are doing different things. And it's remarkable that most countries around the world now are actively engaged in this problem. The challenge, of course, is to do enough and quickly enough.

MONTAGNE: Of course, the United States, at least the Bush administration, hasn't ratified the Kyoto protocol on climate change. What are you hearing now from the Bush administration that suggests to you that anything would change?

Sir STERN: Well, I think you have to look at different states and different businesses, and there are many people in the United States moving strongly on this. California has strong ambitions. You have many cities in the United States committed to this. We've had 10 big firms writing to President Bush after his State of the Union message. And in the State of the Union message itself there was a very strong emphasis on energy security, and a recognition that the kinds of things that you do for energy security are also the kind of things that you would do to curb the emission of greenhouse gases and to help stop global warming. And President Bush recognized that clearly in his speech.

MONTAGNE: But even if the United States could shut down all of its carbon emissions, it couldn't stop the direction that global warming is heading in. If other nations in other areas of the world aren't included, how do you get developing countries like China and India who are now responsible for a great deal of the carbon emissions, and will increasingly be so in the future, to lower their output, to agree to, say, caps on carbon emissions?

Sir STERN: The big majority of the emissions still come from the rich countries. United States is the biggest emitter by quite a long way because it's a richer economy. It's got more economic activity. And so what happens in the United States is of real significance to the rest of the world, because it's a big part of the problem, at least 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions come.

Now in China there's a growing recognition of the problem. China has a very ambitious energy efficiency program. Over the next five years they'll reduce the energy used in relation to output by 20 percent. China is moving in a strong way in a good direction. And with the right kind of collaboration, I think that China would move still faster.

If we recognize what others are doing and we act strongly and together, then I think we can make really effective progress, and that's why carbon trading is so important.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about carbon trading. It's something that businesses have looked kindly on in the United States. Tell us what that is.

Sir STERN: Each firm gets a cap. It's not allowed to emit carbon beyond that cap. And if it does want to go beyond that cap, then it has to buy permits from other people. And it buys the permits from other people because those other people have found ways, they hope cheaply, to go below their cap. So it works, we call it cap and trade. And the advantage of that is it gets your carbon's reductions done in the cheapest possible place.

MONTAGNE: Sir Nicholas Stern is the key adviser to the British government on climate change.

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