Why the Kyoto greenhouse gases accord is full of hot air

By Roger Phillips
web posted May 1999

I hope you all enjoyed last summer. Reports show it was one of the best in recent memory for most parts of Canada. Some attribute this to El Nino, the somewhat mysterious effect of periodically changing seawater temperatures in the Pacific Ocean off Peru. Others will suggest it is a manifestation of so- called ''global warming.''

Think back for a minute to when you were much younger and reflect on past weather conditions. We all remember particularly hot or wet summers. We remember harsh winters, winters without enough snow for skiing, and I am sure the people of Toronto will remember the snow of this winter, supposedly the most since 1873 or some such year.

A series of cold winters in the 1970s prompted many so-called experts to predict an early return to the ice ages. Ironically many of these same ''experts'' now claim pronounced global warming has set in. The truth about weather and temperature is that they are changing all the time.

Scientific studies tell us that over the past 2.5 billion years there have been seven ice ages, times when Calgary was covered in ice up to 9,800 feet thick. The annual average temperature over the globe today is about 15C. When an ice age occurs, the average world temperature falls to about 8C, or seven to eight degrees below today.

But between ice ages, things warm up. Going back three billion years, we can see that four lengthy periods when the Earth was much colder than today occurred in the period up to 225 million years ago. But much of that earlier time saw warmer periods . . . almost all of the past 225 million years have been warmer than today, with the recurrence of ice ages about 750,000 years ago for about 50,000 years, and repeating about 330,000 years ago and again 60,000 years ago.

In between, the weather warmed up to what is thought to be somewhat above today's temperatures. Scientists believe that the alternate periods of cooler and warmer weather are chiefly related to changes in the position of Earth's orbit relative to the sun, the ultimate source of Earth's warmth.

However, the periodic changes in the sun's brightness (the brighter the sun, the warmer the Earth), change in the concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere for natural reasons, and volcanic activity is also thought to play a role.

Long-term weather is just as complex, it seems, as short-term forecasting. Looking at the past 65 million years you might conclude the trend is a cooling one, with ice ages occurring more frequently.

But looking at the past 20,000 years or so, one might conclude things are warming. Looking at only 1,000 years of history, we note that between about 1400 AD and 1650 AD the average global temperature fell one degree. During the earlier 1000-1300 AD warmer period, the Vikings colonized Greenland -- so named for its then green pastures on its southeastern coast -- and grapevines grew in southern Britain. In the cooler period that followed, the Seine froze over in winter and grapevines disappeared from Britain. They have since returned.

I have gone into all this pre-industrial weather history to demonstrate three things:

1. Earth's overall weather and temperature pattern varies between ice ages and warm periods.

2. The cause of these changes is not completely understood, but certainly they have not been due to man, since the extensive use of fossil fuels is a recent development and in any event we have only been around for 250,000 years.

3. Where exactly we are in the cycle is unclear because it takes centuries to discern a statistical trend.

We know that the average temperature in the world today is, despite current warming trends, somewhat lower than it has been for most of the time man has walked the Earth. Probably, though not certainly, left to its own devices, the weather will warm up before it eventually cools off and we experience an all-but-certain future ice age.

If natural forces have the world locked into unchangeable cold and warm weather cycles, what was all the clamour about global warming which led up to the Kyoto Agreement of December, 1997?

It is an accepted scientific fact that carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been present in higher concentrations whenever the global average temperature has also been higher. For instance, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose dramatically at the end of the last ice age.

Please do not mix up greenhouse gas emissions with pollutants, however. Carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, is colourless and chemically inert. It is one of the products of burning fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, wood or coal. Humans exhale carbon dioxide with every breath. Paradoxically, pollutants, such as the white fume in your gas exhausts and sulphur from fuel burning, are thought to reduce global warming.

The recent federal government decision to lower the permitted sulphur levels in gasoline will result in a cleaner atmosphere for our cities -- but will enhance global warming.

But back to greenhouse gases. What is not known is by how much they affect temperature, if at all, or if the concentration of greenhouse gases is an effect of higher temperatures, rather than a cause. This is because we know that the oceans, soil and vegetation on our globe contain something like 42,000 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and the atmosphere contains another 750 billion tonnes. There is a constant interchange of these gases between the two reservoirs.

Each year, about 157 billion tonnes of CO2 or equivalent leaves Earth and is absorbed in the atmosphere. Most of this is natural, but six billion tonnes, or four per cent, is man-made, the product chiefly of the combustion of fossil fuels and changing land use. But about 154 billion tonnes returns to be absorbed by plant life, or reabsorbed in the soil and the oceans. Thus, despite the huge expiration of gases from Earth, the amount retained by the atmosphere is really small, approximately two per cent.

Some scientists believe that if the man-made portion of greenhouse gases were cut back, the increases in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases would cease. But this is like saying that nature can tell the difference between CO2 made by man and that arising naturally. In other words, it assumes that nature sorts out the 157 billion tonnes a year rising into the atmosphere and somehow says these are caused naturally, let's send them back to Earth.

Accurate observations of the precise amounts of gas involved in these exchanges are difficult to make, but it turns out that when the total amount of CO2 emanations from Earth's surface drops, a smaller proportion is returned. In other words, a cutback in man-made gas emissions would lower the atmospheric CO2 by less than the amount of the cutback. A further observation is that the amount of year-to-year increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is independent on the total amount of emissions.

More gas is retained in warmer years and less in cooler years, regardless of emission levels. Some scientists suggest this means something other than greenhouse gases causes temperature variations. Possibly the existence of a warmer atmosphere merely necessitates that more greenhouse gases be retained in the atmosphere in order to obtain equilibrium. This is certainly a plausible explanation for earlier climate changes.

Another theory was developed by reviewing past temperatures, chiefly since 1850 or sometimes 1900, and assuming that all temperature change since is due to increases in these gases. While this conveniently ignores three billion years of climate history during which man-made greenhouse gases could not have been a factor, it certainly gives us a worse-case scenario.

By ignoring all other potential causes for recent climate history, this method projects the average annual temperature to rise by 2C by the year 2100, assuming modest economic growth in developed countries and with the developing countries gradually reaching our standard of living, driving more cars, and using air conditioning in their better and bigger homes, over and above basic industrial use of energy in their economies.

The models predicting global warming due to man-made gas emissions suggest it would be seen primarily in warmer winters, warmer nighttime temperatures, and warmer Arctic and Antarctic weather. Closer to the equator, the change would be less pronounced. The level of water in the oceans would probably rise by about 0.5 metres. Fearmongers have predicted drought areas in Canada, not to mention the invasion of tigers and lions, but the basic models suggest a warmer and somewhat wetter climate. A quick approximation would be to look at today's climate 100 miles to your south.

I mentioned that winters would warm up more than summers. On this basis the average winter temperature in Calgary would rise to -7.6C from -9.6C. (Note today's winter average temperature at Cardston is -6.4C). While this may seem to be no big deal, it is what Kyoto was designed to change.

Canada has committed to reduce its so-called greenhouse gas emissions by seven per cent from 1990, which means 15 per cent from today. Most of these emissions come from natural gas or oil used to heat homes, offices, and factories, gasoline used in personal and commercial transport, agriculture (methane from flatulent cows and carbon dioxide from the use of farm equipment), and the CO2 resulting from steam generation from coal or gas to produce electricity. Even if industrial activity (except transportation) were brought to zero, we would still have to cut back on personal heating and transportation to achieve the eventual requirements of Kyoto. Remember that Kyoto prescribes total emission reductions.

Each year after 2010, individual consumption must drop to counteract population growth to meet the fixed target. Assume the population grows at only one per cent per annum. This means that by 2100, each Canadian will have to reduce her or his personal consumption of energy, drive less and have cooler or smaller houses to reduce heating needs in winter to 33 per cent of today's level.

Since signing Kyoto, the Canadian government has not widely distributed weather predictions based on the accord, although they have a new one. Guess what? Even if Canadians are prepared for the personal sacrifice of far less car usage and smaller, cooler houses in winter and even if all the other developed countries ratify the Kyoto accord, the average world temperature will rise 1.8C instead of 2C. A big sacrifice for little result.

Cutting back emissions doesn't stop the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- it merely slows the increase. And the theory says the more gas the higher the temperature. To stabilize today's temperature, we need to stop any net emissions of greenhouse gases. The combustion of any fuel creates CO2, a greenhouse gas. Crudely speaking we must go back to the days before our ancestors used fire to cook.

Developing countries have no obligation under Kyoto, so their emissions will increase faster and faster as they industrialize. Assume that if instead of allowing people in developing countries to increase their living standards, we convinced them to lower their living standards and accept a similar cut in total annual emissions to that of the Kyoto signatories. The predicted temperature in 2100 would still be significantly above today's, 1.5C rather than 2C.

The bottom line if global warming is caused by greenhouse gases:

o No matter what reasonable cutbacks in annual emissions are made, we won't change the warming trend.

o Even with draconian restrictions on the standards of living of Asians and Africans, things will still warm up.

o Worse, if it turns out that other factors are the major cause of global warming (as has been the case in the past) then the proposed sacrifices will make even less difference.

The children's fairytale of the emperor's new clothes comes to mind. A charlatan approaches the emperor promising him a new suit of a magnificence never before seen. As a further inducement the new clothes were to have magical properties -- only persons of superior intelligence will be able to appreciate the special qualities of the suit. You know the rest. The fake tailor pretended to fit out the king but in reality there was no suit at all. Not wishing to appear stupid, the king praised the quality, although, of course, he saw nothing. A parade was held to show off the new finery. The populace stared in disbelief as the nude king walked down the main street. No one dared to admit they were stupid so they all cheered and commented on the finery. Then a child yelled out, ''The emperor has no clothes,'' and the bubble burst.

I submit to you that the federal government has repeated this fairytale with a twist. The Kyoto accord is nude, just like the emperor.

Now some have criticized me saying my opposition to Kyoto is self-serving. Although my company is in the steel industry, which is threatened by arbitrary greenhouse gas emission controls, IPSCO would actually benefit since we are a steel scrap recycler and don't use coke to make steel out of iron-ore, thus using far less energy and producing less CO2. Further, we are a pipe producer and much of the pipe we make is used for natural gas transmission that should increase with Kyoto. So you see my interest is that of a long-term thinker, not a short-term opportunist.

Others have suggested that as a businessman I am not qualified to comment on scientific issues. To the contrary, I am a physicist, entitled to call myself a chartered physicist and was elected a fellow of the Institute of Physics of the United Kingdom in 1997.

Being a scientist doesn't make someone infallible and indeed there are global emission doomsayers in the scientific community. But an ability to sort out scientific arguments certainly puts me ahead of politicians and bureaucrats.

Kyoto means needless sacrifices for all of us with no payback. This doesn't mean energy conservation is bad -- to the contrary. Saving energy has a good payback as long as we don't reduce our ability to grow new jobs and doesn't lower our standard of living, which would be the effect of the Kyoto limits.

Roger Phillips joined IPSCO in 1982 as President and Chief Executive Officer. He is also a Director of the Company. Mr. Phillips is a Chartered Physicist and Fellow of the Institute of Physics (U.K.) He holds a B.Sc. in Physics and Mathematics from McGill University. This article was adapted from speech delivered recently to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Phillips.

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