Climate might be right for a deal

Copenhagen negotiations will take steps toward a climate-stabilizing treaty

On December 7, negotiators from some 190 nations will convene in Copenhagen to build the framework for a new climate treaty. Twelve years ago, a similar conclave in Japan — also meeting under the aegis of the United Nations — set out with much the same aim. But that accord, known as the Kyoto Protocol, largely failed to deliver on its primary goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s industrial powers.

CLIMATE MIGHT BE RIGHT FOR A DEAL Young environmental activists from around the world plead for a new agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions during the 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
SEEING RED Maps show most of Earth’s land surface was warmer in September 2009 than the 100-year September average. That made this the second warmest September on land since records began in 1880. NOAA
VANISHING ICE The McCall glacier in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has undergone accelerating ice loss in recent decades. From top: Austin Post, Matt Nolan; Both: National Snow & Ice Data Center
GOING GREEN China, which recently surpassed the United States in total (not per capita) greenhouse gas emissions, is trying to improve energy efficiency. Workers install a solar roof (left) and a man charges an electric car (right). AP; Kevin Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images
SOME NATIONS GO IT ALONE A vendor in Kenya charges phones and lanterns using electricity from renewable energy. Several African nations have clean-energy goals. Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
LOSERS AND GAINERS | Greenhouse gas emissions for developed nations shrunk overall by about 4 percent from 1990 to 2007, though much of the loss came through economic changes and not targeted action. Emissions below do not include those from deforestation. UN FCCC

This time around, hopes are high — if cautious — that the negotiations will make progress toward a more politically viable treaty.

One measure of growing political support for such a treaty appears in a joint declaration issued this past July by leaders of the biggest greenhouse gas emitting nations. They vowed to respond vigorously to climate change with measures aimed at keeping global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above the average just before the industrial revolution.

The Kyoto Protocol had sought to keep the planet cool with mandated reductions by 2012 in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by all industrialized countries — cutbacks that were to average about 5 percent below those nations’ 1990 emission levels (SN: 12/20/97, p. 388). Collectively, emissions from industrial nations dropped by 2007 to about 4 percent below 1990 levels.

But 18 of the 40 industrial nations now spew more greenhouse gases than they did in 1990 — some of them substantially more, according to a U.N. report released October 21. The United States, for instance, releases about 17 percent more now than it did in 1990. Percentage increases for emissions by Spain, Australia, Canada and several others are higher still. And China, classified as a developing country and thus exempted by the treaty from having to make emissions reductions, recently surpassed the United States as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, climate scientists have been steadily fine-tuning assessments of Earth’s elevating global fever — and what will happen if stronger anti-inflammatory policies are not enacted soon.

A treaty won’t emerge from the Copenhagen talks, President Obama and other leaders acknowledged on November 15 while attending an Asian-Pacific summit in Singapore. Still, they pledged to “work towards an ambitious outcome in Copenhagen” — one that delivers the building blocks of a new treaty. Indeed, there’s optimism that “we’ll get an interim agreement that establishes the basic architecture of a post-2012 treaty,” says Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va.

What’s needed is acknowledgment that the climate problem is not going to fix itself — and that ecosystems are already imperiled by the trajectory of warming that awaits if business-as-usual reliance on fossil fuels continues, says Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Climate studies don’t guarantee doom, he says. Rather, “the science is a wake-up call to say that we must think about different policy trajectories” to avoid catastrophic scenarios.

Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider echoes the views of many when he says reaching an accord at Copenhagen or soon thereafter will rely on leadership that convinces people that for the health of their families — and the planet — procrastination on strong greenhouse gas limits must not be tolerated.

Kyoto postmortem

In diagnosing why the Kyoto Protocol fell short of its primary aim — catalyzing serious emissions reductions by all major industrial powers — most analysts point to the United States. The treaty, which went into force on February 16, 2005, has been ratified, accepted or agreed to by 189 countries. The lone holdout among nations that negotiated this accord: the United States.

A refusal by the United States, and initially Australia, to ratify the treaty “in some sense diluted the whole sanctity of that agreement and the seriousness with which the world took it,” contends R.K. Pachauri, director of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and director general of TERI, an energy and resources center based in New Delhi.

U.S. negotiators are free to agree to an international accord on behalf of the White House. But unlike in some nations, where heads of state or their representatives are empowered to accept subsequent treaties, no treaty can become U.S. law without the Senate’s blessing. And six months before the Kyoto meeting, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., warned the White House in their “sense of the Senate” declaration that a global climate treaty would not win Senate ratification if abiding by that treaty “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States,” or if the treaty exempted developing nations from having to commit to greenhouse gas reductions.

In what proved to be the real deal breaker, the Kyoto Protocol set up a two-tiered regulatory system. Developed countries were directed to ratchet down greenhouse gas releases. Developing countries — representing most of the world, but not most greenhouse gas emissions — had to make no cuts.

The rationale for this dichotomy: Developed nations had powered their industrial revolutions over the past century by burning cheap, dirty fossil fuels. Cleaner, greener alternatives tend to require a more technologically advanced infrastructure. They also tend to be more expensive (at least if no accounting is made for fossil fuels’ effects on climate and health). Industrial nations, presumably, could afford to switch to low- or no-carbon fuels, but the world’s poorest nations could not. So negotiators had decided even before the Kyoto meeting to give developing countries extra time to find a less carbon-intensive path to industrialization — with help and financing from already industrialized nations.

President Bill Clinton’s negotiators played a pivotal role in drafting the strategy that asked developed nations to shoulder the big cuts in greenhouse gases, notes Diringer. “But the Clinton administration — and I was part of the Clinton administration —did not develop a domestic program that then would have delivered on that target,” he observes. So there “was this fundamental disconnect in the framing [of the treaty] between the international view and the congressional view.”

Clearly, Diringer says, the Kyoto Protocol “went ahead without the United States. It’s just that we’ve limited its effectiveness —its reach.” Moreover, he suspects, “the countries that took on [emissions-reduction] targets under Kyoto, they’re not going to do it again without us.”

Says Diringer, “the view of Congress then — and I’d say now — is that if the United States is asked to take on a binding commitment, we need some measure of commitment from China, India and the other major developing countries.”

Science strengthens

The IPCC’s Pachauri also notes that during the late 1990s and into the new millennium, the world wasn’t totally convinced it needed immediate action on climate because of lingering doubts about the strength of the science.

Since then, the science linking climate change to human activity has strengthened demonstrably, he notes. And the Fourth Assessment Report of that science by the IPCC, in 2007, “created an enormous awareness worldwide” of the risks of continuing business as usual when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases, Pachauri says. That report declared that the world could face global catastrophe if temperatures warm by much more than an average of 2 degrees C, something that the IPCC predicted would occur if atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceed 450 to 500 parts per million (SN: 2/10/07, p.83).

With CO2 concentrations now around 385 ppm, “Leadership in most countries of the world is totally committed to taking action,” Pachauri says.

At a September 30 briefing on Capitol Hill, Robert Corell, a principal consultant to the Washington, D.C.-based Global Environment and Technology Foundation, noted that current atmospheric CO2 concentrations are about 40 percent higher than in preindustrial times, and climbing about 2.3 ppm per year — almost double the rate of increase in the 1970s. At this accelerating pace, he said, atmospheric CO2 will hit 500 ppm by mid-century.

Indeed, Schneider says, if trends don’t change, “We’re eventually headed to 900 ppm, a very dangerous overshoot” of that 450 to 500 ppm target.

Once CO2 is released into the atmosphere, about a quarter of it can stay there for millennia. A climate science report issued September 24 by the U.N. Environment Program, or UNEP, noted that global warming caused by the CO2 already in the atmosphere has only partially been realized. It could take another half-century for the rest to take effect. Even holding atmospheric CO2 at current levels won’t change that trend.

With CO2 concentrations still climbing, Corell worries that “we’re headed to a 4 degree C world” — one where global temperatures will dangerously exceed the preindustrial average. “We don’t want to go there.”

Glaciers melting, vanishing Arctic sea ice, ocean acidification — such symptoms of global warming have been occurring at higher-than-predicted and accelerating rates. Says Corell, “That’s the kind of thing that we’re seeing in this [new UNEP] report that the IPCC early on in 2007 couldn’t see” — because research papers detailing those changes had not yet been formally published.

“The problem we have right now is that the public policy arena has been slow in catching up with the science,” says UNEP’s Steiner.

So on September 24, his agency’s climate-science website unveiled a new Climate Change Science Compendium. It has been developed to update the latest IPCC report, now two years old, by presenting more recent peer-reviewed data — findings that UNEP hopes will inform negotiations at Copenhagen and in the months afterward.

Copenhagen’s prospects

Since the Kyoto negotiations, much has changed that buoys optimism about the Copenhagen talks. For instance, “Having learned — maybe even overlearned — the lesson from the Clinton era and Kyoto, the U.S. administration this time around is really waiting to take all of its cues from Congress,” notes Rob Bradley, of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

And unlike in 1997, he says, “There is at least a reasonable prospect of getting an ambitious climate bill out of Congress in the next six to nine months.”

Moreover, Bradley says, since publication of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report eight years ago, “We’ve seen a real shift among a number of major developing countries, perhaps starting with China, in accepting the science.” One reason: He observes that unlike American climate policy makers, who are usually lawyers, most of those in China were trained as engineers or scientists.

Three years ago, China committed itself to reducing its energy intensity, or energy use per unit of gross domestic product, 20 percent below 2005 levels — by 2010, Bradley notes. Compared with the United States, he adds, China also has considerably more ambitious renewable-energy goals and fuel-efficiency standards for its vehicles. And China has also mandated major emissions improvements by its 1,000 largest industrial operations, he says. Together, these enterprises account for one-third of China’s primary energy use.

Concludes Bradley, “If the U.S. said: ‘We’ll match what China’s going to do,’ I’d be fairly happy with that.”

At a September 22 meeting at the United Nations in New York, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced that his country was committed to long-term reductions in greenhouse gases. For a midterm goal, Japan would aim (but not commit) to cut its emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels — by 2020. Earlier, the European Union pledged to work toward at least a 20 percent reduction during the same time period, and a phasing in of renewable-energy sources to account for 20 percent of energy consumption.

Taken together, Pachauri says, such pledges mark “a big step forward. Now the world is waiting to see what the United States comes up with.” Most countries are looking for clues in the climate legislation now slowly wending its way through Congress.

Numbers game

At Kyoto, there was much debate about how big mandated emissions reductions should be and against what baselines they should be computed. The same issues threaten to prove a stumbling block at Copenhagen.

The United States and a number of other countries have recommended that emissions should fall by perhaps 80 percent between now and 2050. “And that’s a nice aspirational goal,” Diringer says. “But we’re not going to get there unless we set some credible midterm goals.”

Several such midterm numbers are being floated. Many scientists, for instance, would like to see commitments to cut emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels within a decade. The Obama administration, Diringer points out, has proposed instead just returning U.S. emissions to 1990 levels.

Disputes also arise over whether to use 1990 as the baseline year against which to measure cutbacks. Some, for example, are championing 2005. It is anything but an academic issue.

The European Union’s current target for 20 percent cuts below 1990 levels corresponds to only 14 percent below 2005 levels, Diringer points out. And he notes that President Obama’s target ends up in the same ballpark as the EU’s — if measured against 2005 emissions. “And that’s because since 1990 our emissions have continued to grow significantly,” Diringer explains, “while the EU emissions have been relatively flat.”

But Schneider claims that when it comes to midterm goals, “there’s way too much numerology here. I do not want Copenhagen to degenerate into a shouting match over whether emissions are to drop 10, 15 or 20 percent below even 2005 emissions.” And the reason: “There’s no way they’ll be achieved, because it takes a couple decades to make major replacements in our existing energy systems.” The goal, he argues, should be to replace old and dirty power plants, cars or engines as quickly as possible with hyper-green alternatives.

Which is precisely what many developing and industrialized countries are already pledging to do, Bradley says. Rather than setting explicit domestic CO2-emissions standards, many nations are developing strict energy-efficiency standards for new products and buildings. Some are looking to clean their air of conventional pollutants, which could encourage some companies to switch to low- or no-carbon alternatives. And many are investigating the idea of putting a tax on carbon and letting the marketplace figure out how most efficiently to minimize tax bills.

Shame game

But however Copenhagen negotiators structure plans to cut emissions, there’s still the issue of enforcement, Schneider says. A defining weakness of the Kyoto accord was that its mandates for emissions reductions “had no teeth,” he charges. Pachauri agrees.

The problem is akin to developing speed limits and erecting traffic lights with no cops to arrest scofflaws and no judges to impose fines or other penalties on convicted violators. Schneider now worries that without such teeth, any post-Copenhagen accord might prove too feeble to protect the planet.

But Bradley counters that “you can’t think of an international agreement in the way that we think about a domestic law, because there’s no police force there.” In fact, he argues, “the range of tools that you’ve got at your disposal to force a country to do something is really pretty limited. Unless you’re prepared to either invade or slap trade sanctions on them.”

Oh, there is one more option, Bradley notes: Publicly naming and shaming scofflaws. “And it’s perhaps a lot stronger than it sounds.”

Encourage countries to put climate-friendly proposals on the table. Register these proposals with the United Nations. Then make countries report their progress every few years and get countries to take competitive pride in their progress. “I think this can prove a fairly significant, persuasive force,” he says.

Some nations go it alone

International negotiators will try to pound out a new climate treaty in Copenhagen that shares the burden of cutting emissions. But some nations and other government bodies (such as some U.S. states) have decided that the threat of climate change is too pressing to wait for negotiators to agree. Some have offered to take unilateral actions, creating energy-efficiency goals, carbon sequestration programs (such as planting trees) and more.

On October 26, the Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank announced that its new Global Climate Change Policy Tracker program had identified and rated the potential effectiveness of 270 of these unilateral climate policies as part of the bank’s efforts to identify promising climate change-related investment opportunities around the world.

Such projects can make a difference, the bank reports. As of 2007, world greenhouse gas emissions totaled roughly 47 gigatons in CO2 equivalents, and under business-as-usual conditions, Deutsche Bank projects those emissions could climb 25 percent by 2020. But if the unilateral programs the bank identified reach full potential, 2020 greenhouse gas emissions might rise by only 8.8 percent, the bank estimates.

The bad news: Global emissions need to peak and then fall below the 2007 number by 2020, just to be on track to stabilize greenhouse gases around 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalents by 2100. That target is intended to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the planet’s preindustrial average. So even though the 270 programs could make a sizable dent in emissions, such efforts still leave “a significant gap,” says Mark Fulton, who leads Deutsche Bank’s climate change research division. ­

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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