Monday, 14 January 2008

Bali Summit Analysis by New Scientist

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Analysis: How the climate drama unfolded in Bali

  • 22 December 2007
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues
  • Fred Pearce Nusa Dua, Indonesia

THE Bali climate conference had everything, from beaches to the UN's top climate diplomat fleeing the platform in tears. There were charges that the science underpinning the event had been reduced to a footnote, and even a rescue mission from the UN secretary general as the all-night final session extended long into the following afternoon. To top it all, a booed and humiliated US delegation was forced into a U-turn after being unable to find a single supporter in the face of a vitriolic attack from Papua New Guinea.

Between the tears and ultimatums,

the conference may also have ensured that both the US and China become fully engaged in humanity's most pressing task of the 21st century - reining in climate change.

On the face of it, nothing happened that will immediately affect the atmosphere. Almost 24 hours after the scheduled close, with ministers already leaving for the airport,

a deal was reached on the "Bali roadmap" - a document setting the agenda for two years of negotiations that should culminate in a Copenhagen protocol to govern global greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto protocol lapses in 2012.

The key question is whether the roadmap will prevent dangerous climate change.

European nations wanted it to state a "destination" - a target of emissions cuts by industrialised countries of between 25 and 40 per cent by 2020, and for total global emissions to peak within 15 years and halve by 2050.

The US - in its one clear victory of the fortnight - joined with Canada, Japan and Russia to veto this text, saying it prejudiced the coming negotiations.
They secured a compromise reference to the necessity for "deep cuts", with a footnote mentioning several pages taken from a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describing scenarios for reducing emissions.

Here the story gets murky, with the science repeatedly being taken in vain.

The EU and many environmentalists claimed at the meeting that the 25 to 40 per cent plan was the recommendation of the IPCC, and that to reject it was to reject the science. In fact the referenced pages do not make such a recommendation. They simply say that cuts within that range would likely be required to limit concentrations of greenhouse gases in the air to the equivalent of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide. They give equal prominence to two other targets - 550 and 650 ppm - that require less stringent cuts.

Most delegates left the meeting believing that the footnote embraces a 450 ppm target. The Americans know better.

There is a further complication. Delegates repeatedly asserted that

keeping atmospheric concentrations below 450 ppm would prevent global average air temperatures rising by more than 2 °C from pre-industrial levels, which is often seen as a threshold beyond which dangerous climate change will occur. It might. But according to studies presented in Bali by the UK's Met Office, there is only a 20 per cent chance of 450 ppm delivering that.

Uncertainty about the climate's sensitivity to extra greenhouse gases is still so great, said Vicky Pope of the Met Office, that

450 ppm could cause warming of 4 °C or more (see Graph).
The best that can be said is that the significance of keeping below 2 °C is more a political construct than a scientific fact.

None of this detracts from the urgency of dramatically lowering emissions of greenhouse gases.

Once in the air, the lifetime of CO2 is measured in centuries, so climate scientists in Bali argued that only near-zero emissions by mid-century or soon after will begin to make the world safe from climate change.

It is not an impossible target. Three nations publicly committed themselves to bringing their emissions to zero: Norway, New Zealand and Costa Rica. The last says it can get there by 2021.

This was the first UN climate conference at which countries talked confidently about making emissions cuts on such a scale. They are being pushed by the remorselessly alarming science, but also drawn by the assurances of large corporations that such cuts are feasible. Germany last week announced plans to cut its emissions by 40 per cent below 1990s levels by 2020. "This is not altruism, the German economy will benefit from the plans," said the environment minister.

Bali was also the first UN climate conference to take place without a chorus of industrialists warning of economic doom if emissions are corralled. Instead, many are demanding firm long-term emissions targets to help them plan future investment. For them, the failure to enshrine a 25 to 40 per cent cut is a blow.

Bali was also the moment when large developing nations such as China for the first time committed themselves to what the roadmap calls "measurable, reportable and verifiable... mitigation actions".
This did not amount to pledging actual emissions cuts, but it was at least divergence from business as usual.

This commitment, unthinkable only a couple of years ago, did not happen easily. It nearly derailed the conference at the start of its unscheduled final day.

In return for their promise, developing countries demanded that they also receive "measurable, reportable and verifiable" help from the rich world, in the form of money and technology. The European Union swiftly conceded the point, but a suspicious US blocked it.

Just a few hours before, a procedural cock-up had resulted in a chastised and sleep-deprived Yvo de Boer - executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - leaving the platform in tears. Then the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon entered to read the riot act and demand a deal from bickering delegates. Coming after such a tense and fractious morning, the US's one-nation attempted veto caused outrage.

It seemed set to wreck the deal.

But then, in a moment of unscripted high drama rarely seen at UN conferences, Papua New Guinea's head of delegation Kevin Conrad rose above the barrage of appeals to the US delegation and simply commanded them: "If you are not prepared to lead, get out of the way." And they did. If the world finds a way to counter climate change, that will be a moment for the history books.

"Papua New Guinea simply said to the US delegation: 'If you are not prepared to lead, get out of the way.' And they did"

The scale of global emissions cuts now regarded by scientists as essential means that developing nations including China, India and Brazil will need to curtail their emissions sooner rather than later. US delegate Jim Connaughton put the emissions maths most succinctly.

Assuming even a conservative rate of global economic growth, business-as-usual energy technologies will raise global CO2 emissions from 22 billion tonnes to 37 billion tonnes by 2050. Meeting the Bali aspiration of halving global emissions will require cutting emissions to 11 billion tonnes. That is a reduction on business as usual of 26 billion tonnes - more than current total emissions.

The scale of the task was so great that "even if developed countries went to zero, it would still require major developing countries to halve their [projected] emissions," Connaughton said.

One barely discussed element is that the Kyoto protocol appears to have been consigned to the dustbin of history even before its main provisions come into force in January. Nobody talks about a second round of Kyoto targets any more. The Bali roadmap mentions the protocol only once, noting that the new negotiations "shall be informed by... experience in implementing the... Kyoto protocol".

This provides a face-saving way back into the climate fold for Kyoto-refusenik, the US. Nobody is saying so, but it may also wipe the slate clean for countries likely to fail their Kyoto targets. Canada in particular is expected to have emissions 38 per cent above 1990 levels by 2010, rather than the promised 6 per cent cut. Moreover its government has said that it will not, as required by the protocol, buy carbon offsets to make up the difference.

Under the protocol, Canada faced swingeing penalties in a future round of emissions targets. It may now escape them. Likewise Australia, which finally signed up to the Kyoto protocol in Bali seemingly unconcerned that it has no hope of even approaching the target it agreed back in 1997.

Meanwhile the "Berlin Wall" within the Kyoto protocol, which divided the list of industrialied nations with targets and the rest, has disappeared. The roadmap text talks simply of developed and developing nations, without defining them. De Boer says this creates greater flexibility. It also creates new complications.

The one unquestioned promise in Bali was that negotiations on the successor to the Kyoto protocol will be concluded in 2009. That could prove the hardest thing of all to achieve.

(See editorial comment)

Climate Change – Want to know more about global warming: the science, impacts and political debate? Visit our continually updated special report.

From issue 2635 of New Scientist magazine, 22 December 2007, page 6-7

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