This is the first in a new series I’m starting, which will look at the problem of what carbon emissions reductions and atmospheric CO2 targets are need to circumvent global climate disruption. I’ll consider this topic from many angles, and propose what I think is the only workable solution! [hint: it's not an ETS or even a % emissions reduction goal - both are doomed to failure for many reasons].
But to kick this series off, the following opinion piece in COSMOS magazine was published late last year in the wake of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali. I’ve updated and hyperlinked it below. However, my views on this have evolved over the last year – so don’t consider this my last word on the value of the Copenhagen meeting…
The U.N.’s Bali climate change conference ended in drama last week – but is its outcome a blueprint for success or a roadmap to hell built on good intentions?
In the early 1950s, Nobel Prize winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi described a conundrum now popularly called the Fermi Paradox. In brief, it asks the following: “If the universe is so old and vast, and if Earth is merely a typical planet like billions of others, then why have we never made contact with another intelligent civilisation?“
There are many possible resolutions, but one of the most disturbing explanations is the so-called ‘doomsday argument’ – that it is in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. Half a century ago, the spectre of mutual nuclear annihilation loomed as a real possibility. At the opening of the new millennium, we have a new candidate: ‘carbocide’. Could it be that the industrial revolution, which allows a species to achieve interstellar communication also inevitably, dooms it to a fleeting existence?
Yet perhaps global environmental ruin via carbon is not a universal fait accompli. Time will tell, with the next two years of international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change being absolutely crucial.
The much-discussed Kyoto Protocol, defined in 1997, will expire in 2012. Its overarching goal was always to establish a test-bed process for a subsequent, more comprehensive international agreement on tackling climate change. Judged on that basis, I consider Kyoto to have been a moderate success. It was never intended to force through substantial global emissions reductions.
We are now a decade on from Kyoto, and the stakes have never been higher. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it abundantly clear that humanity has already caused a substantial disruption to the global climate system, and risks triggering catastrophic future changes should it continue to follow a business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse gas emissions.
Modelling of alternative ‘stabilisation scenarios’ by the IPCC, shows that by 2050, global emissions must be reduced by 50 to 85 per cent relative to 2000 levels, to avoid dangerous planetary heating. Moreover, under a globally equitable allocation of future carbon, even more drastic reductions will be required of developed nations, due to their disproportionately high per capita emissions and historical debt. Emissions, which are presently growing at around 3 per cent each year (with no sign of a decarbonising global economy), must peak between 2000 and 2015.
Paving the road
Given that we are, right now, in the midst of the period of time when this crisis situation must be turned around, the motivation for urgent global action is huge. This is why the Bali Climate Change Conference, and the two subsequent meetings to be held in Poznań, Poland in 2008, and Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, are of paramount importance.
So now that the dust has settled following the tumult of Bali 2007, was anything useful achieved? My opinion is that, despite the widely reported diplomatic wrangling and difficultly in securing substantive commitments, the Bali Climate Change Conference achieved something very important – it laid down firm terms of reference for the future Copenhagen Protocol (‘Kyoto Phase 2′) that were based on the latest science rather than diluted political compromise.
Emissions reduction targets of 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 were tabled at Bali by the European Union. The cold hard reality is that there was never going to be any binding commitment of this sort made by the majority of developed or developing nations. However necessary such a short-term goal might be from a scientific standpoint, it was too much, too soon.
But equally, that was what was so clever about this audacious proposition. I strongly suspect that if such tough measures had not been touted in Bali 2007, it would have been impossible to convince the majority of parties to sign up to these in Copenhagen 2009. But now, the international community has close to two years to get comfortable with this idea, and to work out how such cuts might be practically achieved.
Bali’s big win
That was Bali’s big win – to define an ambitious ‘stretch goal’ for emissions reduction that will undoubtedly be tough for most nations to meet – and then secure a consensus agreement on the need for rapid, deep cuts.
Even the recalcitrant U.S., who now stands alone among developed nations in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, has pledged in principle its support to the Bali agreement. There is a palpable hope that with a change of U.S. Administration in 2008, irrespective of which major party wins the next Presidential election, their Bali commitment will be followed through with gusto. The recent Australian Federal election illustrated amply where a fresh political perspective can lead.
The Bali Action Plan also explicitly recognises the need to develop positive policy incentives for reducing deforestation in developing countries. This was a missing element of the original Kyoto agreement, which was most unfortunate. Forest preservation has multiple benefits beyond carbon storage, including biodiversity conservation and the supply of critical ecosystem services such as water purification and pollination that would be expensive or impossible to replace.
The challenges in formally recognising the value of existing forests will come in implementing accounting systems that can distinguish between preservation and re-forestation, and in working out how such natural capital might be traded as carbon offsets on a global market. These are matters for later conferences of the parties to debate.
The 800-pound gorilla that continues to traipse haphazardly through these and future negotiations, is the developed/developing world divide. The developed nations – largely the U.S., European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia – clearly need to take a lead in tackling this multifaceted problem. Yet global warming is already so advanced and accelerating in impact that the developing world simply cannot risk dragging its heels for too long, in the name of short-term economic self-interest.
Nations such as China and India will be amongst those most severely affected by more frequent extreme temperature events, greater water scarcity, and rising sea levels. The world’s atmosphere is a global commons, and like the famous prisoner’s dilemma, the maximum benefit for all ultimately lies in cooperation – if we can only convince no one to ‘defect’ from their responsibility, by putting in place equitable pathways for clean development and hastened technological transfer [Ed: This is the key!].
Therein lays the great challenge for Poznań, Copenhagen and beyond.
Filed under: Emissions