Looking for a change on climate policy in Copenhagen

A Q&A with Richard A. Bradley

In December, climate scientists, policy makers and other representatives of 192 nations will convene at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. In advance of that meeting, Science News earth sciences writer Sid Perkins spoke with Richard A. Bradley, head of the Energy Efficiency and Environment Division of the International Energy Agency in Paris. An intergovernmental organization that counts 28 industrialized nations as members, the IEA analyzes and facilitates global energy policy.

What is the purpose of December’s United Nations meeting?

RICHARD A. BRADLEY “There’s going to have to be a continued use of fossil fuels, but the climate system can’t live the with emissions. That’s the reality.” International Energy Agency

The Kyoto Protocol, which prescribes greenhouse gas emission targets for nations that have signed and implemented the agreement, has a commitment period from 2008 to 2012. Copenhagen is to be the concluding negotiation for what will happen after the current agreement expires. While some parties want to simply extend the Kyoto Protocol with new emission commitments, others, like the United States, look for a somewhat different framework.

How can negotiators come up with an agreement that’s equitable as well as effective for the developing and developed world, and for future generations?

We don’t know the answer to that question because climate change is an unprecedented problem and we have limited experience dealing with a problem of such global scope. The Montreal Protocol of 1987, which dealt with regulating emissions of ozone-depleting substances, affected only a relatively small portion of national economies, whereas greenhouse gases emerge from all sectors.

Certainly, I think it’s the case that any agreement forged in Copenhagen will not be the complete package. There will be subsequent negotiation, both within nations and among them, to provide specific details about how the agreement will be implemented. It’s in those details that equity among various interests, whether they be different countries or different economic sectors, will in fact be worked out.

Coal is one of the cheapest and most abundant fossil fuels, yet it is also one of the dirtiest. How can people wean themselves from coal?

It’s hard to imagine how we would transition over the next 40 to 50 years to fuels that don’t generate carbon dioxide emissions and still maintain active economic growth rates without the use of coal. We at the International Energy Agency think that it is essential that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) techniques work. CCS separates the act of fuel consumption from the act of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Frankly, I don’t think there’s a way around this: There’s going to have to be a continued use of fossil fuels, but the climate system can’t live with the emissions. That’s the reality.

What effect do you think the current economic slowdown will have on trends in greenhouse gas emissions and on international agreements?

From the evidence we see, emissions are going to be down globally. And depending on how rapidly the world climbs out of the current recession, that may be the case for several years. The recession might have the effect, basically, of buying some time to meet lower emission concentration targets.
Many governments have responded to the economic realities of the recession with stimulus packages, and an important piece of many of those packages—particularly in the United States, China and Europe—has been investments in cleaner energy technologies. So, as economies grow out of the recession, greenhouse gas emissions might rise more slowly than they would have otherwise.

How important will new technologies be in helping nations meet their targets for reducing emissions?

While a lot can be done with technologies that are currently available, the reality is that meeting even a 450-part-per-million target concentration for carbon dioxide would be difficult to achieve without new technologies, particularly carbon capture and sequestration.

Why is it important to reach a new climate agreement this year?

There’s a certain amount of inertia in the energy-producing infrastructure: Power plants and other greenhouse gas emitters typically have long lives and therefore take quite a while to reach the end of their useful lifetime and be phased out.
A new climate agreement will send signals to the private sector as soon as possible. The sooner that occurs, the sooner we’re likely to see the effects of policy and keep open the possibility of stabilizing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million or below.