Coal-powered Castle Gate Power Plant in Ohio. Photo by: David Jolley.
Ahead of the 18th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar a variety of reports warned that the world was running out of time to avoid dangerous climate change, and that there was a widening gap between what nations have pledged to do and what the science demanded. A landmark report by the World Bank painted an almost apocalyptic picture of a world in which global temperatures have risen 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, including unprecedented heatwaves and droughts, rising sea levels, global agriculture crises, and a stunning loss of species. In addition, scientific studies released near the two week conference found that sea levels were rising 60 percent faster than predicted, forests around the world were imperiled by increasing drought, marine snails were dissolving in the Southern Ocean due to ocean acidification, and ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica was on the rise. The meeting kicked off after the Arctic sea ice hit its lowest extent yet recorded and just over a month since Hurricane Sandy devastated a number of Caribbean Islands before striking the U.S., flooding New York City and the New Jersey coast. Despite such devastation, rising physical evidence worldwide, and increasing warnings (from the UN, the World Meteorological Organization, the International Energy Agency, as well as the World Bank), the meeting in Doha was largely characterized by finger-pointing, specious grandstanding, pettifogging, and a total lack of ambition.
In truth, there was little expectation that this year’s summit would be groundbreaking. Many of the issues on the docket had been long-discussed in previous meetings and the conference was repeatedly described as transitional before, assumedly, the real work gets under to set up a global treaty by 2015 to go into place by 2020 (a year some scientists say will be too late to avoid a global rise above 2 degrees Celsius).
Given this, many observers were also surprised as how acrimonious and contentious the conference was—and many hoped for a stronger, even in it limited capacity, agreement.
“This outcome represents a failure of ambition and yet another failure of political will—the latest in a long line of pledges to take real action someday, but not today,” said the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) President Carroll Muffett. “Governments have now squandered decades that could have been spent averting climate disaster.”
This doesn’t mean that nothing was achieved. The agreement reached on Saturday allows the landmark Kyoto Protocol to limp along for another 8 years and, perhaps most intriguingly, adds new language about “Loss and Damages,” that could make open a space for vulnerable countries to seek some redress from the world’s biggest polluters.
According to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA), after China and the United States, among major polluters only India is expected to have significant growth of emissions over the next 20 years. Click to enlarge.
The conference ended with the survival of the Kyoto Protocol, though its continuation has become largely symbolic, as it will cover less than 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Those signed onto the Kyoto Protocol include the EU, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Australia. The U.S. was never a member; Canada backed out last year amid much criticism; and New Zealand, Russia, Japan refused to join the second commitment period. Adopted in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol only applies to wealthy countries, so it does not include many rising high carbon emitters such as China (now the largest carbon emitter in the world) and India (estimated as the third largest emitter after China and the U.S), however these will be included in the global agreement set to be forged by 2015.
What the conference did do, by settling the issue of Kyoto, is allow nations to now focus on setting-up the world’s first global agreement on climate change (i.e. covering both developed and developing nations) by 2015 to come into force on 2020.
“Countries can now face forward and concentrate on crafting the robust new agreement that we so urgently need,” Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) International Climate Program Director Jennifer Haverkamp said in a statement.
However, the conference failed to get any new pledges for cutting emissions between now and then. Despite tremendous pressures and pleas from vulnerable nations, the EU did not budge on its commitment to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020, nor did the U.S. raise its ambition in cutting emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, a pledge regarded by many as extremely weak for the world’s largest historical emitter.
Funding pleas also fell on deaf ears. Although climate financing was considered one of the most important issues when the conference started, the big decisions were kicked down the road.
Wealthy countries have already agreed to provide $100 billion annually—starting in 2020—to poorer countries for helping them both cut greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But, before the meeting started there was little detail as to how the money would be raised. Despite calls by developing nations for a plan, this was postponed like so many other issues for another year.
Discussion on funding between now and 2020—described as mid-term funding—was also put off for until next year as wealthy nations balked at having to put any new money on the table in the midst of a global economic crisis.
Little movement was also made on the effort to pay developing nations to keep forests standing as a novel way to decrease carbon emissions. The program, known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), became stymied in a debate over how to verify emissions reductions. A decision was also postponed until next year, meaning that REDD+ programs would go another year with little-to-no funding.
Still, not everything was bleak.
When future generations look back at the Doha summit, the most notable fateful words in the agreement may be the the addition of “loss and damages.” For the first time the agreement sets out a mechanism by which vulnerable nations may receive funds from carbon polluters for loss and damages. At the behest of the U.S. and the EU, the language was watered down and added under the already-established $100 billion fund—to avoid claims of unlimited money—but it opens the door, however slight, for countries racked by climate change impacts to seek compensation.
Hurricane Sandy on October 25th in the Caribbean. Scientists say that climate change may have intensified Hurricane Sandy with its impact worsened by rising sea levels and increased evaporation from hotter marine waters. Recent studies predict that worsening climate change will bring more intense hurricanes. Photo by: NASA.
Vulnerable states, poor countries, and NGOs blamed wealthy nations for the lack of ambition, endless stalling, and widely perceived weak agreement.
“Instead of moving aggressively to increase the ambition of actions to reduce emissions and ramp up climate finance for developing country actions, all too many countries dithered and delayed in Doha,” Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of strategy and policy said in a statement. “The U.S. and many other developed countries spent most of their time and energy laying out what they couldn’t do, rather than offering constructive solutions on these issues.”
Many observers had hoped that the U.S.—after the re-election of Barack Obama and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy—would act more urgently and ambitiously at the talks. But these hopes were dashed, perhaps predictably, as the U.S. added no new pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions, failed to put any new finance down, attempted to derail inclusion of Loss and Damages, and, according to observers, played a mostly obstructive role during the talks, even on less contentious issues such as transparency.
The U.S. wasn’t alone in being lambasted by observers. Canada, which has become a climate pariah, was largely panned for its tar sands; New Zealand was criticized for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol; and Russia came under fire at the end for stalling negotiations that had already run into overtime. The “Colossal Fossil” award—given to the nation or bloc of nations that is seen as most obstructive during the talks—was given to both Canada and New Zealand by activists.
“It was only a handful of countries—such as Poland, Russia, Canada, the U.S. and Japan—who held the negotiations to ransom,” Samantha Smith, the head of WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative, said.
About half-way through the conference a massive typhoon swept through the Philippines killing nearly a thousand people. The typhoon was surprising in many ways: its intensity, the region it struck, and the time of year. After news of the disaster reached Doha, Filipino negotiator at the conference, Naderev Sano, gave what has been described as the most impassioned speech of the two weeks.
“We have never had a typhoon like Bopha, which has wreaked havoc in a part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century. And heartbreaking tragedies like this is not unique to the Philippines, because the whole world, especially developing countries struggling to address poverty and achieve social and human development, confront these same realities,” Naderev Sano, said, adding, “I appeal to the whole world. I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people. I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around.”
There’s always next year.
(12/05/2012) A new analysis finds that 21 wealthy countries spent five-times more on subsidizing fossil fuels in 2011 than they have on providing funds for poor nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The analysis, by Oil Change International, comes in the midst of the current UN Climate Summit held in Doha, Qatar; progress at the talks has been stymied due to the gulf between poor and rich nations, including on the issue of climate financing.
(12/03/2012) Marine snails, also known as sea butterflies, are dissolving in the Southern Seas due to anthropogenic carbon emissions, according to a new study in Nature GeoScience. Scientists have discovered that the snail’s shells are being corroded away as pH levels in the ocean drop due to carbon emissions, a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. The snails in question, Limacina helicina antarctica, play a vital role in the food chain, as prey for plankton, fish, birds, and even whales.
(12/03/2012) Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial sources are set to hit a new record high this year according to a new analysis by Global Carbon Project. The analysis in Nature Climate Changes predicts that CO2 emissions will rise another 2.6 percent, hitting 35.6 billion tonnes. The scientists warn that such steep climbs in global emissions year-after-year means that the door is rapidly closing on a global agreement to keep temperatures from rising 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
(12/03/2012) A massive team of scientists have used multiple methods to provide the best assessment yet of ice loss at the world’s poles, including Greenland and a number of Antarctic ice sheets. Their findings—that all major ice sheets are shrinking but one; that ice loss is speeding up; and that this is contributing to the rise in sea levels—add more evidence to the real-time impacts from global climate change. Melting ice sheets at the poles have raised sea levels 11.1 millimeters, or about 20 percent of observed sea level rise, in the past twenty years, according to the landmark study in Science.
(11/28/2012) Arctic snowfall accumulation plays a critical role in ringed seal breeding, but may be at risk due to climate change, according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters. Sea ice, which is disappearing at an alarming rate, provides a crucial platform for the deep snow seals need to reproduce. Ringed seals (Phoca hispida) require snow depths of at least 20 centimeters (8 inches): deep enough to form drifts that seals use as birth chambers.
(11/28/2012) Sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated, according to a new study in the open access Environmental Research Letters. In addition to imperiling coastal regions and islands, global sea level rise is worsening the damage inflicted by extreme weather such as Hurricane Sandy, which recently brought catastrophic flooding to the New Jersey coast and New York City.
(11/28/2012) With the worst effects of climate change, we are seeing how pollution hurts both human health and the environment but there is good news: a new study shows that organic farming stores more greenhouse gases in the soil than non-organic farming. By switching to organic methods, many farmers across the globe may be helping to solve the climate crisis at the same time as they improve soil quality and avoid the use of pesticides.
(11/26/2012) Even as the clamor to reduce greenhouse gas emissions reaches a new high—echoed recently by such staid institutions as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA)—a new analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) finds that 818 new coal-fired plants are under proposal in China and India. In all 1,199 new coal-fired plants are currently planned worldwide, according to the report, totaling 1.4 million megawatts of energy.
(11/26/2012) As the 18th meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) kicks off this morning in oil and gas rich Qatar, the world body warns that much more ambitious greenhouse gas cuts are needed to keep catastrophic climate change at bay. A new report by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the European Climate Foundation finds that even if all current emissions pledges are kept, the world will still spew 8 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent above what is needed by 2020, putting the globe on a fast-track to dangerous climate change.
(11/23/2012) Forests worldwide are at ‘equally high risk’ to die-off from drought conditions, warns a new study published this week in the journal Nature. The study, conducted by an international team of scientists, assessed the specific physiological effects of drought on 226 tree species at 81 sites in different biomes around the world. It found that 70 percent of the species sampled are particularly vulnerable to reduction in water availability. With drought conditions increasing around the globe due to climate change and deforestation, the research suggests large swathes of the world’s forests — and the services they afford — may be approaching a tipping point.
(11/20/2012) As expected, greenhouse gas concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere hit another record last year, according to a new UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases means that radiative forcing—changes in the atmosphere’s energy balance that leads to warming—has jumped 30 percent in the last twenty years.
(11/20/2012) A new report by the World Bank paints a bleak picture of life on Earth in 80 years: global temperatures have risen by 4 degrees Celsius spurring rapidly rising sea levels and devastating droughts. Global agriculture is under constant threat; economies have been hampered; coastal cities are repeatedly flooded; coral reefs are dissolving from ocean acidification; and species worldwide are vanishing. This, according to the World Bank, is where we are headed even if all of the world’s nations meet their pledges on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, the report also notes that with swift, aggressive action it’s still possible to ensure that global temperatures don’t rise above 4 degrees Celsius.