The next Cold War will be fought with greenhouse gasS

The world stands on the brink of annihilation. Powerful nations threaten each other by building ever more destructive weapons that could reduce farmlands to charred rubble. Sounds like the quaint old Cold War of the twentieth century, right? Wrong. It's the future scenario that many environment groups predict for the next century.

Instead of nukes, the new weapons will be industrial factories; and instead of fearing a world destroyed by bombs, we will fear slow strangulation by a carbon-saturated atmosphere. Governments will view fossil fuel emissions as the new weapons of mass destruction. Call it the Emissions War.

This issue came to the fore this as nations across the world prepared for the annual UN climate conference set to begin later this month in Durban, South Africa. These days, nearly all scientists are unanimous in their agreement that fossil fuel emissions could change the planet's climate catastrophically, endangering citizens of every country and city. Which means that greenhouse gases are now officially a political problem.

The Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO, raised red flags earlier this week by suggesting that China was "blackmailing" the international community with threats of carbon emissions. The accusation came in the wake of Chinese business representatives suggesting that they'd begin releasing more hydrofluorocarbon-23, a potent greenhouse gas:

In the run-up to the international climate negotiations in Durban later this month, China has responded to efforts to ban the trading of widely discredited HFC-23 offsets by threatening to release huge amounts of the potent industrial chemical into the atmosphere unless other nations pay what amounts to a climate ransom.

China's threat comes after the European Union and other nations moved to ban HFC-23 credits from internal carbon trading mechanisms in recognition of the perverse incentives created by these credits in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The vast amounts paid for HFC-23 offsets have led to factories in China and elsewhere manufacturing more HCFC-22 and its HFC-23 by-product than necessary, just to maximise the amounts paid to destroy HFC-23 through the UN-backed carbon trading scheme.

In a shocking attempt to blackmail the international community, Xie Fei, revenue management director at the China Clean Development Mechanism Fund, threatened: "If there's no trading of [HFC-23] credits, they'll stop incinerating the gases" and vent them directly into the atmosphere. In an interview with Bloomberg News, given at the Carbon Forum Asia in Singapore last week, Xei Fei claimed he spoke for "almost all the big Chinese producers of HFCs" who "can't bear the cost" and maintain that "they'll lose competitiveness".

The suggestion here is that the Chinese government might be using the threat of deadly emissions to get its way in economic agreements. As I said earlier, there's an echo here of Cold War nuclear threats, where the USSR and US were in such intense competition that they were willing to destroy the world to defeat their enemies. Greenhouse gases, even more than nuclear bombs, cannot be contained to a single target.

One of the toughest parts of the Emissions War is its connection to economic prosperity. The Cold War boosted economies too, especially the military-industrial complex. But fossil fuels don't just power weapons production — they fuel everything. And nations can't decide to just switch over to new energy sources overnight. Factories, buildings, and production processes are all wedded to specific kinds of energy. Sadly, it's almost impossible to convert a coal-burning facility into one that uses natural gas or biofuels.

That's why the Emissions War will be fought partly by city and industrial planners. A new study explores this aspect of fossil fuel emissions. Its authors say that factories and buildings that unleash large amounts of carbon built over the next five years will affect the environment for decades to come.

If we hope to cut greenhouse gases over the next century, we need to be designing cities today to use energy sources that release as little carbon as possible. That might mean creating factories that can use both coal and biofuel. Or it could mean hiring scientists who can help design enzymes for chemical processing that don't create toxic emissions. (This may sound futuristic, but it happens all the time — bioengineers can often find efficient, non-toxic ways to replace chemicals used in industry.)

There will be strange new theaters of conflict in the Emissions War. Economic agreements and civil engineering decisions could end the world — or give it new life.