Guarded optimism on Copenhagen climate talks

Negotiators representing 181 nations completed their final prep work in Barcelona, Spain, last Friday, on a new climate treaty — one they hope to build a month from now at a major conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. But some observers worry that what comes out of the Copenhagen deliberations may not have sufficient coordination and strength to meet the challenges that Earth’s climate has begun throwing at us.

Although many world leaders had hoped to have the framework for a new climate treaty ready by now, it looks like even the basic architecture of any accord won’t emerge until Copenhagen. That would leave any crafting of details to be fleshed out well after the Danish meeting ends, which is currently slated for a week before Christmas.

 “Governments can deliver a strong deal in Copenhagen, and nothing has changed my confidence in that,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, at the close of the Barcelona meeting. But between now and then, he said, “We need more movement” by governments around the world.


Well, he said he expected industrialized countries to offer better “clarity” in Copenhagen on how much money they will commit to. This would be money that rich countries are willing to pony up to help poorer ones transition to cleaner, greener energy and manufacturing technologies.

De Boer said that “I particularly look to the United States to announce a clear, numerical mid-term target. And I’ve been consistently assured by U.S. representatives that this can be done.” He’s referring to a desire to see pledged U.S. reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020.

But Congress hasn’t proven it can stomach sharp cuts, and the U.S. climate negotiators have promised they’re not going to push for something in Copenhagen that Congress would clearly find unpalatable, says Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in Arlington, Va. Unless negotiators and U.S. legislators are on the same page, any hope of the United States eventually adopting a climate treaty risks being dead in the water from day one. As it was for the Kyoto Protocol.

Right now, regardless of what de Boer says, no one knows what Congress will find acceptable since the long-awaited U.S. climate bill is sitting in a cue behind health-care legislation. To date, Congress has not been seriously discussing big caps on greenhouse emissions by 2020. Moreover, Diringer notes, Congress has indicated that it’s “not going to bind itself in an international agreement unless that agreement also provides for some measure of commitment by the major emerging economies” — especially in reining in their greenhouse emissions.

“But to expect developing countries to cut emissions, at this stage is, I think, totally unfair and inequitable,” argues R.K. Pachauri, director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Director General of TERI, an energy and resources center based in New Delhi, India. Keep in mind, he says, “You still have 1.6 billion people in the developing world who don’t even have access to electricity.”

So what are de Boer’s expectations at the Copenhagen meeting? Any successful agreement, he says, “must record, in black and white, the commitments of individual governments” on a host of important issues, such as
— emission-reduction targets by 2020 from industrialized nations,
— plans by developing countries to limit a growth in their greenhouse emissions,
— short- and long-term funding from rich countries, and
— “an equitable structure to manage and deploy that money.”

In fact, de Boer suspects that any Copenhagen accord would likely resemble the Kyoto Protocol. He refers to a Dutch saying: If you have only one pair of shoes, don’t throw them away before you get new ones. Right now, de Boer says, “Kyoto is my shoes — and I would like to keep them on until I know there is something better.”

A number of developing countries would also like to see a Kyoto “part II” come out of Copenhagen, rather than some novel accord. One reason: Developing countries have been exempted under the current treaty from having to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

But that’s precisely why the United States is lobbying for the opposite: New rules that make developing countries cut greenhouse gases.

Argues de Boer, the Kyoto treaty “is the only legally constituted working model we have of international commitment and cooperation to reduce greenhouse gases.” So it’s the template that he thinks negotiators should work from.

In fact, there is another working model to cut greenhouse gases: the Montreal Protocol. And although it was designed to limit global releases of pollutants that harm stratospheric ozone, it has accomplished more to date to limit greenhouse warming that any other multilateral program. The reason: Many ozone-damaging pollutants are also potent greenhouse gases.

Comparisons between that that treaty and the Kyoto Protocol are apt for another reason as well, according to Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider. The Montreal Protocol didn’t develop as soon as pollution’s threat to Earth’s protective blanket of stratospheric ozone emerged, he points out. It was only after researchers began imaging a newfound annual thinning of ozone above Antarctica, he says, that leaders rushed to draft the ozone treaty.

Schneider says the world is good at mobilizing to protect itself — at least when people get sufficiently scared that their planet is in peril. But he worries that global leaders may be hoping to avoid painful action on climate unless and until goaded to do so by some analog of the ozone hole.

And he’s not alone in such concerns. About three years ago, a European colleague called Schneider. “He said: ‘Steve, when are we going to have a climate hole?’” In other words, a clear and unambiguous sign that Earth’s climate is in trouble. 

This guy has a point, the Stanford scientist says: Maybe only a catastrophe will prod substantive action. But Schneider asks: How many killer heat waves, like the one that struck Europe in 2003, will the world need before it accepts that climate is changing? How many Hurricane Katrinas? How many factor-of-four increases in wild fires throughout the American West?

He hopes it won’t take a rise in sea level that starts to submerge Miami or Shanghai. But it may take something relatively big — and potentially irreversible. Bad as that would be, Schneider observes grimly, suffering a small climate-linked catastrophe now “would be better than waiting to take action only after we get a really big disaster.”

So is he pessimistic about Copenhagen? To achieve what most scientists recommend right now, he acknowledges, would require cutting greenhouse-gas emissions within the next decade to 20 percent below levels in 2005. And to achieve that would probably take “a warlike footing.”

Which we could probably accomplish, Schneider says. During World War II, he notes, “We got the entire auto industry to produce tens of thousands of airplanes and tanks in almost no time at all.” But the difference between then and now is that then we were unquestionably at war.

“So are we going to be able to muster that degree of political will to address climate? I don’t think so,” he says. “Not unless the catastrophe comes soon.

“I don’t want to be so cynical,” he says, “but as a scientist I’m sworn to tell the truth. And the truth,” Schneider says, is that when it comes to hard action on climate in Copenhagen: “I’m hopeful — but not optimistic.”

Diringer also has his doubts. When it comes to drafting firm greenhouse-reduction targets, he observes, “Realistically, we may be in a position in Copenhagen of merely agreeing to continue negotiating — and setting another deadline.”

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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