- New Scientist, 17 December 2008 by Fred Pearce, Poznan, Poland
- Magazine issue 2687. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
THE French scientist smiled enigmatically. "It doesn't matter what the politicians promise. Even if we stop emissions growing today, the world will still warm by 2 °C, a lot more in some places. It is too late to prevent that." The human race, in other words, has already failed in its task, agreed by 180 nations at the Earth Summit back in 1992, to prevent "dangerous climate change".
Philippe Ciais, the incoming chairmain of the Global Carbon Project, a network of scientists that monitors how humans are influencing the natural carbon cycle, was speaking at the UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland, earlier this month, presenting the project's latest findings. He warned of a growing gap between political rhetoric and scientific reality on climate change: while politicians boast of slashing CO2 emissions and promise further cuts, in the real world things are deteriorating fast. Global emissions have risen 28 per cent already this decade, compared with 9 per cent for the whole of the 1990s, said Ciais (see Soaring emissions).
Why? For several decades until 2000, the world's economy was creating progressively more wealth for every tonne of carbon burned. Since 2000, that improvement in efficiency has abruptly halted and emissions have soared as a result.
Meanwhile nature's ability to absorb CO2 is declining - it is down from 60 per cent of all man-made emissions in 1960 to 55 per cent today. As the world talks about stabilising CO2 levels, it is actually accumulating ever faster.
In Poznan, world leaders spent two weeks trying to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto protocol, aiming for a deal to be signed this time next year in Copenhagen. Progress was slow. Delegates made advances towards setting up an adaptation fund to help poor countries hit by inevitable climate change, and in paying tropical countries to protect their rainforests. But while the European Union agreed measures that could yield 20 per cent cuts by 2020 at a separate meeting in Brussels (see "Polluter pays?"), in Poznan rich nations made no new promises about their future emissions.
As proceedings drew to a close, the UN's chief climate negotiator, Yvo de Boer, said that "serious negotiations must begin now". He said the same thing after last year's talks in Bali.
Meanwhile the small band of scientists at the event complained that politicians still don't get the enormity of the problem. Minister after minister claimed at Poznan that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said we can avoid dangerous climate change if we stop average global temperatures from rising by 2 °C, and that this can be done by halving CO2 emissions by 2050. Neither claim is true, said Ciais.
"We need an 80 per cent cut by 2050, and that would only give a 70 per cent chance of avoiding [a rise of] 2 °C," said Martin Parry, co-chair of the latest IPCC report on climate change. Another scientist put it: "Most of the politicians just don't get it. We have to emit less carbon dioxide than the planet can absorb. The planet does not do political compromises."
One man at least who seemed to get it was UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, whose attendance in Poznan underscored how climate change is now his top priority. He promised to convene at least one meeting with world leaders next year to bang heads together.
In part, the Poznan paralysis arose because, as many leaders admitted, the world is waiting for the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama, in hopes of a change of heart from the US. All agree that no deal is worth having without the US signing up, and a deadline for countries to make firm proposals on emissions cuts was set for April 2009 specifically to fit with Obama's timetable.
Obama's emissary in Poznan, John Kerry, the next chairman of the US senate foreign relations committee, gave little away about Obama's plans, other than to promise the US will be no push-over. He said the US Senate would not ratify any agreement if "big emerging economies failed to make commitments of their own".
This is a familiar sticking point. Numerous developing countries said they would oppose any attempt to extend the list of nations facing formal targets - even though there are a growing number of developing countries whose per-capita emissions have overtaken those of nations subject to Kyoto targets (see "Playing catch-up"). The good news was that a handful of developing countries began to talk about voluntary cuts. Mexico set an "aspiration" to halve emissions by 2050, and South Africa promised to stop its emissions increasing by 2025 and reduce them from 2035.
Behind the scenes, delegates also saw signs that the next US administration is already engaged in a diplomatic dance with China that might allow agreement in Copenhagen. In his formal presentation, head Chinese delegate Xie Zhenhua read out a long and detailed list of Chinese achievements, including a 7 per cent rise in energy efficiency in two years, the closure of 2300 small coal mines and a huge expansion of wind and solar power.
Some delegates believe this list signals the development of targets that China might adopt in Copenhagen. Kerry hinted this might be the kind of commitment he had in mind. "There are plenty of ways to give credit to other countries for what they are already doing. China for instance is engaged in many different, very positive steps to deal with its energy consumption."
What is still lacking is a framework for working out long-term entitlements to emit greenhouse gases. Developing nations are reluctant to accept targets till there is a fair formula.
One suggestion was per-capita entitlements. The European Union said, in documents submitted to the negotiations, that to halve global emissions by 2050, "average emissions per capita should be reduced to around 2 tonnes of CO2, and that in the long term, gradual convergence... of national per capita emissions would be necessary".
Most scientists say 1 tonne would be nearer the mark. But if the EU idea wins favour, some kind of equitable share-out of emissions could form part of the Copenhagen compromise.
Will planet Earth wait? Maybe not. Ciais had one last word of warning. For the past decade, atmospheric concentrations of the second most important greenhouse gas, methane, have been stable - rare good news, while it lasted. Then last year, there was a sudden surge. Ciais said unpublished research traces the gas to the Arctic, which saw unprecedented warming in 2007.
Ciais says melting permafrost released a fraction of its huge stores of frozen methane. "Once this process starts, it could soon become unstoppable," he says. It is one of the "tipping points" most feared by climate scientists. "It is too early to say if we have passed that threshold. But once it is passed, even zero emissions of CO2 won't stop the warming."
Heads of EU states meeting in Brussels as the Poznan talks proceeded finally reached an agreement on how to meet their promise of cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. The EU says it will go to 30 per cent if others agree the same in Copenhagen next year.The agreement was hailed by EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, who was in Poznan, as "the most ambitious in the world". However, the agreement contains so many concessions to industry and power companies that critics say it will never deliver the promised cuts.Europe's plan is to make polluters buy emissions permits, which are currently handed out free. The new plan is to auction the permits after 2012, but under pressure from east-European countries such as Poland, which rely on burning coal for their power, and Germany, which is planning new coal power stations, the meeting doled out exemptions that in some countries could excuse 70 per cent of emissions from needing permits.Environmentalists say this will cause the auction price of permits to collapse, cutting incentives to reduce emissions and develop green energy technologies, and ultimately making it much harder for the EU to reach a 30 per cent target.They add that the new rules will allow European companies to meet their targets largely by buying carbon offsets from developing countries. The deal's supporters say that without it the market would collapse anyway.
Many countries that don't have Kyoto targets are rapidly increasing their CO2 emissions. To some this seems only fair, since they lag behind the rich world - even China, whose per-capita emissions are only a quarter those of the US.However, a growing number of nations that were excused targets under Kyoto because they qualify as developing nations have now soared past some European countries in the emissions stakes. The trend is revealed in new estimates from the US government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a respected international monitor.For instance, by 2007 Malaysia had increased its emissions fourfold from 1990 levels. It now emits more per capita than the UK, as do Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Those three have virtually doubled their emissions since 1990, and so has South Korea - embarrassingly for its most famous envoy, climate-crusading UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.Some of the most startling figures come from the Gulf oil states. The United Arab Emirates' per-capita emissions are now twice those of the UK, while Kuwait's are four times as high as the UK's, and Qatar's more than six times.