There's no escaping greenhouse gas control

The American chemical industry needs to prepare for global policy

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Nick Basta


By Nick Basta

Your ability to buy a gas-guzzling SUV a few years from now may depend, believe it or not, on the outcome of an argument now going on between the Russian Ministries of the Economy, and Energy and Natural Resources.

The background of that statement is a little convoluted, but stay with me for a few moments. The Kyoto Protocol, written more than a decade ago, is still around, despite a number of writers who have composed its obituary. The Russian Ministries appear to be wrestling with the same economy-versus-environment issues that the United States and other nations have grappled with, and the outcome may determine whether Russia votes to ratify the protocol. If it does, the next round of U.N.-sponsored meetings about global warming, scheduled for Buenos Aires in early December, will go forward with worldwide ratification without the United States, whose rejection of the treaty under the Bush administration is well known. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, this country will be compelled to deal with a unified global policy of limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases.

As a matter of national policy, the United States could choose to continue to go it alone in ignoring greenhouse gas control. But, as a practical business matter, a growing number of corporate executives are realizing that they need to deal with the global warming issue. A late August Business Week cover story sums up the situation nicely: “Global warming: why business is taking it so seriously.” Some of the companies cited in that article are multinationals that must deal with a global, not just domestic, marketplace. But others are leading U.S. public power companies, which, from the necessity of long-term planning, are preparing for a day when they will have to monitor -- and limit -- greenhouse gas emissions. Insurance companies are noting that changing weather patterns will force changes in utility companies’; practices.

Bringing this a little closer to home, the American Chemistry Council, Alexandria, Va., will begin reporting in 2005 as part of its Responsible Care program on the greenhouse gas emissions and carbon intensity of its members, which represent a significant portion of the U.S. chemical industry. In last month’;s “End Point” column, I noted how Responsible Care is expanding and strengthening its provisions, which have been successful in reducing emissions of pollutants. “Reporting” gas emissions does not equal limiting them — but once the data are collected, analyzed and publicized, the pressure to do something about them will inevitably grow.

The global warming debate has become fantastically politicized, which at the very least testifies to its broad repercussions. The scientific community is deepening its consensus that human activity causes global warming. Consider a couple of recent citations: “Over the next century it is likely that forcing of the climate system by human activities will greatly exceed changes in forcing caused by natural systems” [National Research Council, “Understanding Climate Change Feedbacks,” 2003]. Also, “Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth’;s climate. It is virtually certain that increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will cause global surface climate to be warmer” [American Geophysical Union policy statement, December 2003].

Very little scientific research disputes these statements. The counterargument instead tends to emphasize weaknesses or uncertainties in various predictions or data sets, or that the social, economic or even legal issues outweigh the scientific evidence. I won’;t pretend to sum up the for-and-against arguments here. A reader who wants to tackle them can start with a generally pro-global-warming news compilation maintained by EPA, http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/newsandeventsScienceandPolicyNews.html, and stack that up against a Web site maintained by a policy group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, www.globalwarming.org/science.php. It makes for interesting reading. A third Web site, www.theclimategroup.org, maintained by The Climate Group, a U.K.-based organization, is tracking the efforts already under way by some corporations and governments to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

There’;s one thing that no one disputes: Season by season, the measure of CO2 in the Earth’;s atmosphere goes up. It reached a record high of 379 ppm last March. Regardless of how the Russians decide to proceed, today’;s engineers will need to deal with that number.

Nick Basta is editor at large for Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at Nbasta@putman.net.

 

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