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Devil in the Details: World Leaders Scramble To Salvage and Shape Copenhagen’s UNFCCC Climate Summit
29 November 2009
by Jack Rosebro
With little more than a week left before the 15th Congress of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convenes in Copenhagen, and following months of increasing doubt that international agreement can be realized on a binding emissions reduction plan to replace the Kyoto Protocol, many countries have begun to solidify their positions in a whirlwind of shuttle diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiations that now appear certain to push climate negotiations well into 2010.
At issue is the 2012 expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, a binding but effectively unenforceable 1997 treaty that had set greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets for 40 industrialized countries, referred to as Annex 1 countries, yielding an average GHG reduction of 5.2% as compared to 1990 emissions, to be achieved between 2008 and 2012.
The Copenhagen timeline was designed to allow signatory countries two years to hash out details of their respective compliance issues so that a replacement protocol could be ratified and “entered into force”, or made operational internationally, by the time the Kyoto Protocol expires. The 15th Congress, also known as the 15th Conference of Parties, or COP 15, was initially intended to be a largely procedural summit, with many major negotiating points settled and most environmental ministers prepared to sign a binding emissions treaty that contained specific emissions targets as well as commitments to financing structures.
However, the slow pace of negotiations spurred UNFCCC delegates to publish a “roadmap to Copenhagen” in December 2007 at the 13th Congress in Bali, in an effort to accelerate the progress of those negotiations. With the conclusion of the 14th Congress in Poznań, Poland a year later and little progress made, member delegates, some of who had been showing signs of pessimism and fatigue in their statements to the press, were left with just four second-level meetings at which to resolve major outstanding differences.
In response to the reluctance of some developed countries to put concrete short-term emissions reduction targets on the table, African delegates walked out of one closed session en masse on 4 November, temporarily bringing proceedings to a halt. The last official UNFCCC meeting prior to the 15th Congress ended 6 November in Barcelona, and environment ministers have been shuttling in and out of Copenhagen since then to conduct ad hoc negotiations prior to the summit.
Going into Copenhagen, two key treaty components remain unsettled: (1) the amount of greenhouse gas emissions reductions to which countries are willing to commit, including the manner in which those reductions are calculated, and (2) the willingness of developed countries to finance emissions reduction schemes in developing countries and emerging economies. Although most countries have already revealed their opening emissions reduction proposals, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer pointed out Thursday that “we still await clarity from industrialized nations on the provision of large-scale finance to developing countries for immediate and long-term climate action.” “One Agreement, Two Steps”
Expectations for Copenhagen quickly became complicated after Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen boarded an overnight flight to Singapore to address an impromptu breakfast forum on climate change at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit on 15 November. Despite asserting in his speech that “we cannot do half a deal in Copenhagen and postpone the rest till later”, Rasmussen proposed just that: Copenhagen’s delegates would eschew a treaty in favor of a political text—“say, five to eight pages”—covering all aspects of the Bali mandates, and informing further negotiations, albeit without any legal authority.
|“We are not aiming to let anyone off the hook.”|
|—Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, introducing his proposal to forgo efforts to establish a binding climate treaty at the Copenhagen climate summit|
After Copenhagen, countries would then concentrate on “two processes”, now colloquially referred to as “two steps” in 2010. Specifically, they would focus on emissions reductions as well as financing, with negotiations for the two issues separated from one another. Rasmussen’s “one agreement, two steps” plan was quickly endorsed by US President Obama, as well as Australia’s Prime Minister Rudd and Russia’s President Medvedev, all of whom were present at the APEC summit. Obama remarked that “we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good”, and that the agreement should have “immediate operational effect.” 
With support evident for Rasmussen’s plan, APEC leaders promptly canceled discussion of a proposed multilateral 50% GHG emissions reduction target by 2050, much to the relief of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs climate negotiator Yi Xianliang, who later remarked that the “50% by 2050” global cut in the original draft APEC statement—which is the smallest reduction cited by the IPCC as having the potential to significantly mitigate the worst effects of climate change—was “very controversial” and “might have disrupted negotiations”.
Backlash against Rasmussen’s plan was swift and severe. Environmental NGOs, as well as small UNFCCC member states that are projected to bear the brunt of climate change, immediately accused supporters of the plan of working to scuttle the Copenhagen talks before they began. Kim Carstensen of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) protested that “it’s just too early to lower the ambition”, while European news agency Euractiv ran the headline “Asian leaders kill hopes for Copenhagen deal”.
Although many of Europe’s leaders and environment ministers appeared to have been somewhat blindsided by Rasmussen’s actions, initially insisting that efforts to craft a binding agreement at Copenhagen were progressing as planned, they quickly fell into step by the end of the next day, at times using almost identical language to explain that it was not necessary to “dot all the i’s and cross the t’s” at COP 15 to achieve success.
|“Bretton Woods plus Yalta, multiplied by Reykjavik.”|
|—British Energy Secretary Ed Miliband, summing up the historical significance of COP 15|
Although US President Obama has committed to attending part of the 15th Congress in Copenhagen, Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard downplayed the importance of his appearance or lack thereof, reiterating in an interview with the BBC “...the most important thing to the whole negotiation picture at this stage is that the United States commit to bring figures to Copenhagen, specific numbers for reductions as well as specific numbers for finance. That is what matters, and that matters to the whole world”.
Swedish Environment Minister Anders Carlgren, whose country currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, echoed Hedegaard’s position, telling Reuters “in the end, an agreement in Copenhagen will depend on an American number. Without a clear and ambitious number, the whole agreement will be in danger”.
Climate Change And The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report
From an official point of view, COP 15 is to be informed by the most recent report from the UNFCCC’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), published in 2007. IPCC assessment reports do not present original research, but serve as comprehensive syntheses of existing scientific information, coupled with estimates of the plausibility of various emissions scenarios as well as the relative ability of ecosystems and societies to adapt to the effects of a warming world.
AR4 found that the rate of warming of the Earth’s surface was “unequivocal”, with the likelihood that it is primarily caused by anthropogenic activity “very likely”, at a confidence level of greater than 90% (earlier post). AR4 also affirmed that warming would have to be held to no more than 2 ºC to 2.4 ºC (3.6 ºF to 4.0 ºF) above pre-industrial levels to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, and that global GHG emissions would have to peak around 2020 and then sharply decline by 50% to 85% by the year 2050.
That estimate came, however, with a potent caveat: that it represented only the direct effects of warming, and excluded the potential effects of any positive feedbacks (such as melting Arctic ice and deteriorating carbon sinks) and/or tipping elements (such as the collapse of major rainforests) due to the lack of comprehensive data on those subjects at the time AR4 was written. In addition, the complex, deliberate, and lengthy publishing cycle of the IPCC’s Assessment Reports—which have so far been produced in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007—has not kept pace with the abrupt acceleration of many key indicators of climate change.
Findings and observations published since the most recent Assessment Report was completed almost three years ago include:
March, 2007: Researchers from the Carnegie Institution and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory conducted the first comprehensive study on the effects of climate change on global food production (earlier post), and found that warming temperatures had caused annual crop losses of approximately 40 million tons, at a cost of approximately 5 billion USD, for just three crops: barley, maize, and wheat. Although technological yield gains had offset the losses, the study established a clear and simple correlation between increasing temperatures and crop yields. Effects of further and faster warming would be difficult to predict, according to the authors.
Such concerns were echoed a year later by a report issued by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana Madariaga (earlier post), which recommended that climate change be viewed as a “threat multiplier” to the EU; one which “intensifies existing trends, tensions, and instability” and may give rise to “climate refugees” as competition increases over dwindling resources.
May, 2007: An international team of researchers concluded that the ability of the Southern Ocean to absorb carbon dioxide had slowed by about 15% per decade since 1981 (earlier post), and projected that at the present rate of deterioration, it will have lost two-thirds of its ability to store carbon by 2050. The findings were particularly relevant because many emissions reduction calculations had assumed that the Earth’s natural carbon sinks would maintain a relatively uniform rate of carbon uptake as greenhouse gas emissions increased.
February, 2008: Researchers from England, Germany, and the United States proposed replacing the term “tipping point”, which suggests a specific time frame, with “tipping elements” to describe known ecosystems in danger of collapse, yet for which a likely timeframe could not easily be estimated (earlier post). Major potential tipping elements include: melting of Arctic sea-ice, decay of the Greenland ice sheet (GIS) ice volume, decay of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) ice volume, overturning of the Atlantic Ocean conveyor belt thermohaline cycle, increased amplitude of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), reduced rainfall during the Indian Summer Monsoon, massive dieback of the Amazon rainforests, massive dieback of the world’s boreal forests, and the release of large volumes of methane from thawing permafrost.
April, 2008: In an article entitled Dangerous Assumptions (earlier post), Roger Pielke, Jr., Tom Wigley, and Christopher Green questioned the relevance of the reference emissions scenarios that the IPCC used in the Fourth Assessment Report to underpin estimates of future warming trends. The authors argued that the IPCC’s reference scenarios, which had been developed in the early 1990s as potential baselines which do not take emissions reductions into account, were no longer accurate. At the time the article was written, the emissions levels of the most intense reference scenario, known as A1FI (A1, Fossil Intensive), had already been outpaced by actual global GHG emissions by 2005, despite international emission reduction efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol. The IPCC is expected to release revised reference emissions within the next few years, so that they can be used in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), slated for completion in 2013.
July, 2008: The Australian government published the Garnaut Report, a comprehensive study of the effects of climate change on the country’s economy (earlier post). The report concluded that “...damage from climate change, perhaps immense damage, is likely to be part of the Australian reality of the 21st century and beyond.” Although lead author Ross Garnaut observed that “the good options on mitigation will soon be gone”, he also noted that unilateral emissions reductions would be a tough political sell because “Australian action alone will be of little consequence to climate change impacts.”
During a town hall meeting on the report later that year, Garnaut revisited Australian resistance to emissions reductions, pointing out that “for those who say we mustn’t be first—well, you’ve got your wish, because we are a long way from being first. The best we can hope for is that we are not a drag on the pack.”
August, 2008: Speaking to The Guardian, Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Defra (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), cautioned that although his government should continue to work towards limiting the average global temperature increase to no more than 2 ºC (3.6 ºF) above pre-industrial levels, it should nevertheless prepare to adapt to as much as a 4 ºC (7.2 ºF) increase. (Earlier post.) Watson’s warning represented one of the first statements by a ranking scientific adviser to an industrialized country that the goal of limiting global temperature increase to no more than 2 ºC—previously regarded by many experts, governments, and international bodies as a line in the sand against catastrophic climate change—may no longer be attainable.
January, 2009: A study from Stanford University and the University of Washington (earlier post) estimated a greater than 90% likelihood that by 2080-2100, average growing season temperatures will exceed even the most extreme seasonal temperatures recorded in the twentieth century for the majority of the world’s tropics and subtropics, exposing an area with a current population of more than three billion people to significant food insecurity.
February, 2009: Record heat waves in late January and early February overloaded urban energy, water, and transport systems in the southernmost states of South Australia and Victoria and intensified hundreds of seasonal and man-made bushfires throughout the countryside, killing 374 people. At the same time, the northeastern state of Queensland struggled to cope with the effects of tropical cyclones Charlotte and Ellie, which brought rain and “king tides” that made two-thirds of that state a disaster zone, destroying livestock as well as key crops, and amplifying outbreaks of disease (earlier post). Australia is considered to be one of the most vulnerable developed nations to climate change.
February also saw the publication of a Los Angeles Times interview with US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (earlier post), in which he voiced concern that the effects of climate change could decimate California’s agriculture as well as its urban water supplies. In a worst case scenario, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra Nevada snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture as well as cities. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” Chu said. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California... I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.” California is currently in its third year of serious drought.
March, 2009: Using data from more than one hundred plots of rain forests around the tropics (earlier post), researchers from Australia’s CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship and Sustainable Ecosystems, as well as CSIRO’s Global Carbon Project found that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is killing trees at a faster rate than it is stimulating growth in the trees that survive warmer climes.
Tropical rain forests have so far absorbed an estimated one billion tons of carbon a year from CO2 in the atmosphere, and “hopes have been high,” according to the researchers, that the forests would soak up even more in the future as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere grows. The CSIRO study found, however, that the opposite is occurring: although individual tree growth is stimulated by increased atmospheric CO2, the warmer climate that comes with increased greenhouse gases is causing more trees to die.
May, 2009: Testifying at a public hearing conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Stanford University professor Mark Jacobsen urged the EPA to incorporate black carbon into calculations of greenhouse gases. Although black carbon is a particulate and not a gas, a growing body of evidence indicates that it is reducing the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth’s surface (earlier post), particularly at the planet’s poles. Jacobson first showed in 2000 that black carbon was the second-leading cause of global warming after carbon dioxide in terms of radiative forcing and, in 2002, that its control would be the most effective method of slowing warming.
Emissions from ocean-going ships which burn minimally refined bunker fuel are primary sources of black carbon. Although emissions from international shipping activities were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol process, a 2008 study by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated that actual shipping emissions are as much as three times previous calculations, and may rise 30% by the year 2020 (earlier post).
July, 2009: A NASA satellite study found that Arctic sea ice had thinned dramatically between the winters of 2004 and 2008, with thin seasonal ice replacing thick older ice as the dominant type for the first time on record (earlier post). Summertime melting of Arctic sea-ice has also accelerated in a manner that no climate model had predicted, with the area of sea-ice melt during 2007, 2008, and 2009 approximately 40% greater than the average prediction from IPCC AR4 climate models.
August, 2009: Switzerland and Italy agreed in principle to redraw portions of the Swiss-Italian border, established in 1861, that had shifted due to the recession of glaciers in areas where the border is determined by the area’s watershed (earlier post). Earlier in the year, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) in Zürich reported that many glaciers have been losing mass at rates double those of the 1980s and 1990s. The WGMS estimates that more than half of Switzerland's glacier mass and 40% of Europe’s glacier mass have disappeared since 1850. Glaciers in Europe’s southern regions have been affected the most, with glacial mass in the Pyrenees one-tenth of what it was a hundred years ago.
September, 2009: Scientific data on warming trends was updated at the “4 Degrees And Beyond” climate conference (earlier post), the second synthesis conference on climate change sponsored by the UK government in the last five years. Four degrees of warming would represent a hotter average surface temperature for the planet than any time in the last 30 million years, and could trigger a temporary “runaway effect” that would eventually stabilize at higher surface temperatures. The first conference, “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change”, was held in 2005 at the Met Office in Exeter, and had focused on pathways to climate stabilization at or below 2 degrees Celsius.
November, 2009: A team of climate scientists, including many lead authors of past IPCC reports, published the “Copenhagen Diagnosis” (earlier post), an interim synthesis report that detailed the acceleration of key indicators of climate change, many of which have been observed at or beyond the upper bounds of predictive climate modeling.
The day before the Copenhagen Diagnosis was released, scientists working with the University of Texas at Austin Center for Space Research announced that data from NASA’s GRACE satellite revealed that the East Antarctica ice sheet, the largest ice sheet in the world and one thought to be relatively stable compared to the smaller West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, has been losing roughly 57 billion tons of ice per year since 2006.
A Portfolio Of Promises
With the Copenhagen summit approaching quickly, many countries are scrambling to stake out their positions and announce climate change initiatives before the first session is called to order. Recent developments and announced initiatives include:
AOSIS. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an intergovernmental organization of low-lying coastal and small island countries which was established in 1990 to address climate change issues, has bitterly denounced the apparent decision by many countries to forgo seeking a binding agreement on emissions reductions during COP 15.
|“When we look around the world today, there are few countries showing moral leadership on climate change. There are plenty of politicians willing to point the finger of blame... Few countries are willing to discuss the scale of emissions reductions required to save the planet.”|
|—Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed|
AOSIS has called for nations to agree to limit warming to well below 1.5 ºC (2.7 ºF) above pre-industrial levels as well as the long-term stabilization of greenhouse gases at a 350 ppm CO2 equivalent. To achieve this, AOSIS has proposed that Annex 1 countries commit to reducing their GHG emissions by at least 45% below 1990 levels by 2020, and at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.
“Every country arrives at the negotiation seeking to keep their own emissions as high as possible,” complained Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, whose country is an AOSIS member state, at the Climate Vulnerable Forum earlier this month. “They never make commitments unless someone else does. This is the logic of the madhouse, a recipe for collective suicide.” With regard to the adaptation support offered by developed countries to date, Nasheed lamented “The sums of money on offer are so low that it is like arriving at an earthquake zone with a dustpan and a brush. We don’t want to appear ungrateful, but the sums hardly address the scale of the challenge.”
Australia. Immediately after assuming office on 3 December 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia. The terms of the Kyoto Protocol permit Australia to increase its emissions 8% above 1990 levels by 2012. Rudd has also lobbied hard to get Australian lawmakers to agree to a national carbon trading network, but the legislation has been stalled for a year, despite being watered down with the promise of free carbon credits for major emitters.
The plan is designed to cut Australian emissions by at least 5% from 2000 levels by 2020, or up to 25% if similar levels are multilaterally agreed upon in Copenhagen. Slated for a July 2011 start, it would regulate 1000 of the country's biggest polluters and 75 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and one of the world’s highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases. According to the UNFCCC, Australia’s 2009 greenhouse gas emissions, including land use, land use changes, and afforestation/deforestation (LULUCF) are 82% higher than they were in 1990.
Brazil. The Brazilian government is hailing its reduced annual rate of deforestation—now approximately 700,000 hectares per year (2,700 square miles, an area the size of Shanghai)—as an “historic figure”, according to Carlos Minc, the country’s environment minister. Environmental organizations have countered, however, that the slowing rate of deforestation is due in part to reduced demand for products as a result of the global economic downturn.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has also joined forces with French president Nicolas Sarkozy to propose a set of guidelines for consideration at Copenhagen, including a proposal that industrialized countries should outline emission pathways consistent with the goal of reducing emissions by at least 80 percent from their 1990 levels by 2050. Brazil has offered a 36 to 39% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, as compared to today’s emissions, rolling back the country’s emissions to approximately 1994 levels.
Canada. With no tangible climate plan on the table, the Canadian government has largely fallen into step with the “one agreement, two steps” strategy proffered by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen and endorsed by US President Obama. However, Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice has stated that Canada should not be subjected to emission reductions as aggressive as those of Japan or the European Union because of its expanding population and energy-intensive industries. In particular, Prentice seeks to shield Alberta’s emissions-intensive oil sands operations from the effects of emission reductions.
Canada’s 2009 GHG emissions are 48.7% higher than they were in 1990, despite its pledge—later abandoned by Canada’s Conservative government—to reduce emissions to approximately six percent below 1990 levels by 2012, under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. In addition to emissions arising from Alberta’s tar sands operations, Canada’s overall emissions have been affected by unprecedented pine beetle infestations of its boreal forests due to warmer winters, reducing their effectiveness as carbon sinks, and accounting for around half of the increase in Canada’s annual emissions between 1990 and 2005.
China. Following a review of the country’s national task plan on climate change, led by Premier Wen Jiabao, China’s State Council announced Thursday that rather than offer an absolute emissions reduction figure, China will reduce the greenhouse gas intensity per yuan of its GDP by 40 to 45% in 2020, compared to 2005. Given that China’s economy is still growing, such a strategy is unlikely to result in year-to-year emissions reductions for several decades. Some experts estimate that China overtook the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases as early as 2006. (Earlier post.)
Accurate assessments of China’s burgeoning emissions profile have proved elusive, with several recent studies indicating that the IPCC has severely underestimated China’s GHG output in the past. A February 2008 analysis by Maximillian Auffhammer (University of California, Berkeley) and Richard Carson (University of California, San Diego), pegged annual growth and associated emissions increases at 11% or more. (Earlier post.) The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report had estimated China’s annual rate of economic growth to be somewhere between 2.5 and 5.0%.
China termed its reduction a “voluntary action”, raising questions about the level of transparency that it might offer with regard to the accounting of emissions reductions. “The relevant question is not whether such approaches and actions are identical” to that of other countries, cautioned the authors of a recent World Resources Institute (WRI) policy brief on Chinese and American climate policy, “but whether they are measurable, reportable and verifiable”. Although China has already announced immense emissions reduction projects, such as the planting of 60 billion trees in the next decade, Chinese officials have signaled that only efforts toward reducing greenhouse gases which are underwritten by developed countries will be open to independent verification.
Climate change projections authored by Chinese scientists indicate that China’s annual mean air temperature is likely to rise by 1.3 to 2.1 ºC in 2020, and 2.3 to 3.3 ºC in 2050, as compared to 2000 temperatures. Given that the previous 100 years saw warming of 0.5 to 0.8 ºC, most of which occurred in the latter fifty years, it appears likely that warming in China could cross the threshold of 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels within two decades. Glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau as well as the Tianshan mountains are expected to retreat at an accelerated rate, with some smaller glaciers disappearing altogether. The frequency of extreme weather and climate events is already on the rise in China, and is expected to have “immense impacts on socio-economic development and standards of living.”
European Union. In 2007, EU environment ministers agreed in principle to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, increasing to 30% by 2020 “provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions, and economically more advanced developing countries adequately contribute according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities” (earlier post). The European Union has maintained this position steadfastly over the past two years, and EU environment ministers met Tuesday to discuss the possibility of using the “30% option” as a carrot to entice other countries to set their sights on more ambitious commitments.
|“I think it is very important that the deadlock is broken. That means that the poorer countries must have an understanding that the richer countries will help them adapt to climate change and make the necessary adjustments in their economies. We have got to provide some money to help that. Britain will do so, the rest of Europe will do so and I believe America will do so as well.”|
|—UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown|
At the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in the city of Port of Spain, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed that major GHG emitters kick start emissions reductions in developing countries by establishing an annual Copenhagen Launch Fund to finance incentives such as afforestation and energy efficiency, funded at 10 Billion USD per year by 2012. The fund would provide a bridge to 2013, when approximately $100 billion per year would be available to developing countries, according to Brown’s plan.
Brown said that the UK would commit £800 million (1.3 billion USD) to the fund, and that he expects the European Union to back the fund, as well. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is attending CHOGM along with UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen in a last-minute bid to accelerate climate change negotiations, has already signaled support for the fund in principle.
India. The Indian government has consistently asserted that it will not agree to legally binding emissions reductions under any circumstances. However, India plans to produce domestic legislation to limit future emissions, and has offered to submit biennial emission reduction reports to the UNFCCC, albeit without any mechanism to verify their accuracy. “Internationally, we reject legally binding emissions. We will never agree to that, and we are prepared to be alone in our stand, but domestically we have to be proactive in reducing carbon emissions”, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh asserted last week at a press conference on population growth.
Ramesh has also released a report which rejects the consensus that climate change is accelerating the melting of India’s Himalayan glaciers. “So far, we have been depending on research conducted by the West on what is happening to our glaciers and environment,” argued Ramesh, complaining that “biased” reports had been produced by Western scientists, and calling for more research produced within India. The IPCC quickly responded, arguing that Himalayan glaciers are receding “faster than in any other part of the world” and that many of the region’s glaciers are on track to disappear by 2035 at current rates of depletion. IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, himself a native of India, dismissed Ramesh’s report, which has yet to be officially endorsed by the Indian government, as “schoolboy science.”
By Friday, however, Ramesh appeared to have found a renewed commitment to reducing national emissions, following China’s pledge to reduce its own GHG emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 per cent of its 2005 levels by the year 2020. “I don’t think we can sweep aside the fact that our peer group of nations like China, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa have clearly put down voluntary, unilateral, non-legally binding and quantitative targets,” Ramesh told the Hindustan Times. “It has implications for us. We can’t run away from it.”
Earlier in the day, Ramesh, who was in Beijing for a climate negotiation strategizing session, was granted a “completely unexpected” audience by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that lasted over an hour. Chinese and Indian climate negotiators have already been seen conducting intense negotiations in Copenhagen in recent weeks. “We’ve done the homework”, said Ramesh upon exiting the meeting. “There is a lot of room for reducing energy and emission intensity in India without affecting our 7-8 per cent GDP growth.”
In August, researchers from India and the United States released a study that used data from NASA’s GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite to verify that groundwater reserves in Northern India, one of the most heavily irrigated region in the world and home to more than 600 million people, were rapidly depleting, with an estimated extraction rate approximately 70% higher than just 15 years prior (earlier post).
India currently stands as the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases at approximately 3 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year, with emissions projected to more than double, and potentially to more than triple, by the year 2030 if current patterns of energy use and population growth continue.
Indonesia. Rejecting a World Bank report which pegs the country as the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has nevertheless pledged to cut emissions by 26% in 2020, as compared to a projected business-as-usual amount for the same year. Yudhoyono has hinted at the possibility of more aggressive reductions, including measures to reduce the country’s rate of deforestation, if developed countries are willing to finance the measures.
Indonesia’s current rate of deforestation is estimated to be about 100,000 hectares (3,800 square miles) per year, down from a high of 250,000 hectares (9,500 square miles). The destruction of forests and peatlands is estimated to make up as much as 80% of Indonesia’s GHG emissions. With its relatively long coastlines, a high concentration of people living in coastal areas, a high dependence on agriculture and natural resources, a relatively low adaptive capacity, and a tropical climate, Indonesia is considered to be particularly vulnerable to the projected effects of climate change.
Japan. Earlier this year, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment announced a “vision” of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% from 2005 levels by 2050, while maintaining the current standard of living. However, the incoming Japanese government has offered to cut emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, contingent on a similar target being agreed upon in Copenhagen.
Russia. Following years of indifference to climate change, Russia has unexpectedly reversed policy and offered to reduce GHG emissions 22 to 25% below its 1990 emissions baseline. Such a target would nevertheless allow emissions to increase above current levels, as Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been in decline for twenty years, due in part to the collapse of the country’s inefficient smokestack industries as well as the recent economic decline. It is estimated that Russia’s 2007 greenhouse gas emissions were a full 34% below 1990 levels.
United States. President Obama will offer a provisional 17% GHG emissions reduction target for 2020 with reductions of 30% by 2025, 42% by 2030, and 83% by 2050. However, that target is locked to a 2005 reference year, rather than the internationally accepted reference year of 1990. A 17% GHG reduction by 2020, as compared to 2005 emissions, is roughly equal to a 3% to 6% reduction below 1990 levels, depending on accounting methods.
Speaking at a White House press conference, EPA Secretary Carol Browner affirmed “We believe that this [the proposed US emissions reduction targets] is a very serious step. We believe that we need to complete the domestic legislative agenda here. We have been working hard to do that. We’ve already concluded work in the House, and we will continue to work in the Senate.”
In June, the US House of Representatives passed a bill calling for a 17% reduction in US GHG emissions by 2020, compared to 2005. Last month, a US Senate committee approved the Kerry-Lugar bill, which calls for a 20% reduction by 2020, compared to 2005 levels; that bill, however, is expected to be weakened by subsequent committees before moving on to the Senate floor some time next year.
|“We are seeking nothing less than the transformation of our energy system.”|
|—Jonathan Pershing, chief US delegate to the Copenhagen climate summit|
Obama is scheduled to attend one day of the Copenhagen talks next month, tentatively set at 10 December. Although there is at present no indication that he will attend the critical last days of the negotiations, which conclude 18 December, the White House has indicated that US cabinet members will be present throughout the summit. More than 85 world leaders have now confirmed that they will attend COP 15.
Physical Realities versus Political Realities
Despite the length and complexity of the climate change negotiations, one key issue has been largely shuttled to the side: that of the gap between the most ambitious emissions reduction plans proffered by major emitters, and the estimated reductions required to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. With regard to climate change, “political reality must be grounded in physical reality, or it’s completely useless”, observed John Schnellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PiK), earlier this year.
Schnellnhuber had previously advised officials from the Obama administration that the United States may need to reduce its emissions from the present 20 tons of carbon dioxide per person to a zero-carbon target by 2020 in order to have a 50-50 chance of stabilizing the climate at two degrees C above pre-industrial levels. At September’s “4 Degrees And Beyond” climate conference, he reported that his estimates were rebuffed, with officials complaining that his calculations “were not grounded in political reality” and that “the US Senate would never agree to this.”
“It seems to me that Copenhagen is not the end of this,” said Tim Wirth, current president of the UN Foundation, and (as US senator from Colorado) one of the architects of the first cap-and-trade plan for acid rain a generation ago, in a recent interview with The Observer. “We are going to have Copenhagens for the rest of our lives.”
 UN News Center: At Commonwealth meeting, Ban drums up momentum for climate change summit, 26 November 2009
 Julianna Goldman and Daniel Ten Kate: APEC Concedes Copenhagen Climate Treaty Out Of Reach. Bloomberg News, 16 November 2009
 David Fogarty: APEC retreats from CO2 target, Brazil pledges cut. Reuters, 14/15 November 2009
 Euractiv/Reuters: Asian leaders kill hopes for Copenhagen climate deal, 16 November 2009
 BBC Radio 4 World At One: Transcript of Connie Hedegaard and John Prescott on Climate Change, 16 November 2009
 UNFCCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (Fourth Assessment Report), 2007
 Jet Propulsion Laboratory/National Administration of Space and Aeronautics: The Big Thaw? NASA Satellites Detect Unexpected ICe Loss In East Antarctica. 24 November 2009
 Deborah Seligsohn, Robert Heilmayr, Xiaomei Tan, and Lutz Weischer: WRI Policy Brief: China, The United States, And The Climate Change Challenge.World Resources Institute, October 2009
 Rama Lakshmi: India challenges Western data linking climate change, Himalayan melt. Washington Post Foreign Service, 22 November 2009
 Office of the Press Secretary, The White House: Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs; Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Mike Froman; and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Carol Browner. Press Secretary’s Office: 25 November 2009
 Suzanne Goldenberg: UN plans ‘shock therapy’ for world leaders on environment. From The Observer via The Guardian, 20 September 2009
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