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A Still-Clouded Pollution Issue : The Role 3 U.S. Utilities Played in the Cleanup

November 01, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG

DECIN, Czech Republic — The financial arrangement that paid for the modernization of the Decin heating plant is an experiment built around the theory that the fight against global warming can be made more affordable if carbon dioxide emissions are eliminated where cleanup is the least costly.

Three Midwestern U.S. utility companies--Wisconsin Electric Power Co., Commonwealth Edison Co. of Illinois and Northern Indiana Public Service Co.--gave the local heating authority, Termo Decin, a no-interest 25-year loan for $600,000. That seed money helped Termo and the city secure approximately $8 million in loans and grants from the Czech and Danish governments.

With that financial foundation, Termo invested in up-to-date gas-burning generators at a new plant that serves 1,500 apartments in the city's Bynov neighborhood, and shut down coal-fired boilers.

The result: 20% of the soot and smog was immediately eliminated from the air.

The modernization of the Bynov plant eliminated about 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere. Each of the three contributing U.S. utilities was credited for eliminating 2,000 tons.

At the moment, the credits have no value. But if a global agreement to restrict emissions goes into effect, such credits could allow the companies to exceed their emissions limits in the U.S. by 2,000 tons annually during the life of the new Bynov plant--or they could sell the credits.

Under the proposed global warming program, wealthy nations--or individual companies--would get permission to emit more carbon dioxide elsewhere in exchange for paying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions where the reduction will come cheapest.

Such programs "will be very central" when diplomats resume their negotiations Monday in Buenos Aires, says Michael Zammit Cutajar, the U.N. executive overseeing the negotiations.

But negotiators face a difficult task: Many potential participants fear the trades would limit the industrialization that could improve living standards. And large numbers of environmentalists argue that the plans would simply allow the United States to continue its energy-profligate ways.

At a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in December, delegates from all over the world agreed that the major industrialized nations would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% over the next 15 years. The United States committed to lowering its carbon emissions by 2012 to a level 7% below its 1990 emissions.

Many scientists believe the energy-intensive, carbon-emitting activities of modern industrialized society are causing a dangerous warming of the global climate. They fear the warming is occurring as carbon dioxide and other gases trap the Earth's reflected solar heat like an invisible thermal blanket.

As a result, according to the United Nations-convened Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average temperature around the world could increase between 1.8 degrees and 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

That could be enough, many scientists believe, to melt glaciers and thus flood low-lying coastal areas around the world. That in turn could shift the globe's lateral heat bands to the north and south, turning temperate zones into tropics; drying out the grain-growing belt; and causing conditions that would lead to drought, insect-borne disease and famine.

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