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Report sets climate change challenge

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- The UK issued an urgent call to arms on tackling climate change on Monday with a major government report warning that global warming was likely to do more economic damage than either of the world wars or the Great Depression if it continues unchecked.

The report, written by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, concludes that around a fifth of the value of the global economy -- some $6.98 trillion -- would likely be wiped out unless drastic action is taken.

The possible ecological and human consequences of climate change also make grim reading. They would include rising sea levels that would create hundreds of millions of environmental refugees from low-lying coastal areas, water shortages caused by melting glaciers and severe drought and the extinction of up to 40 percent of wildlife species.

"This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, unveiling the report on Monday.

"Unless we act now... these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible. There is nothing more serious, more urgent, more demanding of leadership -- here, of course, but most importantly in the global community."

Yet the report also suggests that the worst effects could be countered by spending just one percent of global GDP on a concerted effort to stabilize the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- with markets for low-carbon products likely to be worth some $500 billion by 2050.

Stern also calls for the expansion of the European Union's existing carbon emissions trading market as the basis for an eventual global scheme. Britons are also likely to face increasingly stringent limits on their carbon consumption, such as higher taxes on cars, air travel and fuel.

Yet the danger for the UK is that unless it can prove it is serious about building a low carbon economy and can persuade others to take similar steps, all talk of saving the planet may simply be adding even more hot air to the atmosphere.

"I accept that we have to be bolder at home because it gives us international influence and it sets the standards for others to follow," said Blair.

"However, I want to emphasize it is only international action that will really address the problem on the scale that is needed."

Stern suggests that a successor agreement to the Kyoto Treaty, which binds 35 rich nations to cut their carbon emissions by five percent of 1990 levels, is necessary now rather than in 2011 as scheduled.

Next week the UK has its chance to make that case to the rest of the world at the United Nations climate summit in Nairobi, Kenya.

Yet, with figures suggesting most countries will miss their Kyoto targets and with major industrial powers such as the U.S. and China failing even to ratify that treaty, the prospects of getting them to sign up to even tougher limits may be beyond even Tony Blair's famed powers of persuasion.

Last week the European Commission admitted that the carbon emissions of the EU's original 15 members would be just 0.6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, a long way off its eight percent target.

While the UK looks set to slash its emissions by 23.2 percent, almost twice its target, and Germany is also on course, seven countries -- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain -- were set to exceed their individual carbon limits.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. -- the world's biggest source of greenhouse gases -- has taken a skeptical stance on climate change since withdrawing from negotiations over Kyoto in 2001. Since then U.S. emissions have soared above 1990 levels by 16 percent.

But American objections to carbon curbs may be softening. Seven north-eastern states and California have signed up to their own Kyoto-style targets while California announced in September that it would sue six major car manufacturers over the environmental damage caused by their vehicles.

Meanwhile former vice-president Al Gore has blazed a trail for the cause of environmental awareness in the U.S. with his well-received shock-umentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."

But even persuading the U.S. of the need to sign up for multilateral efforts on climate change would still mean persuading newly-industrialized nations such as China and India to also agree to measures which could put the brakes on their own spectacular economic growth.

As a developing nation, China was excluded from Kyoto targets, despite being the world's second largest carbon emitter. And though the average Chinese citizen only consumes around 10-15 percent of the energy an American citizen does, China's huge population -- around a fifth of the world's -- means that rising emissions could quickly out-strip any reductions by Western nations.

Yet the UK and the EU may have one ally. Russia, which crucially signed up for Kyoto in 2004 to take the amount of global carbon emissions created by signatories past the legally binding figure of 55 percent, has suffered a drastic reduction in its levels of industrial output since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With emissions down by around 35 percent, well below its Kyoto target, Russia looks set to become an important player in any international carbon trading market.

With such a scheme likely to be worth billions of dollars to the Russian economy, Blair ought to at least be able to count on the support of Vladimir Putin as he seeks to persuade other world leaders to go green.

A man rides an elephant through flood waters in Thailand. Global warming threatens to devastate low-lying coastal areas.



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