Can Cancún’s COP deliver?

Another year, another Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, number 16 in a series that looks set to run and run. Mexico is the host, Cancún the seaside resort where thousands of diplomats, negotiators, activists and apparatchiks are gathering to have another go at sorting out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. High hopes for a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen last year were dashed on the rocks of US inaction, Chinese intransigence and a failure of political will. A weak but face-saving Accord was cobbled together at the last minute, but it satisfied very few — least of all those who’d like to do more than pay lip service to a 2ºC target.

By way of contrast, the build-up to Cancún has seen prospects of a final deal downplayed by just about everyone involved in the process. COP 16 will make progress on the building blocks of a Kyoto follow-up, we are told, but few expect anything substantial to happen before COP17 in Durban next year.

Nature News has a good overview of expectations:

“It’s a question of trying to get some incremental gains,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. “The approach of all-or-nothing that we took in Copenhagen blew up in our faces, and we can’t just sit back and do nothing at all.”

John Vidal in the Guardian reports on the impatience of Latin American and African nations:

“There is deep frustration among the least developed countries”, said Bruno Sikoli, the spokesman for the 54-strong group of mainly African countries. “We feel there has been far too much talking. If the rich countries put nothing new on the table, then it will be very serious. Climate change is affecting our countries hard now. It is most urgent.”

Johann Hari in The Independent takes the bleak view:

The collapse of Copenhagen has not shocked people into action; it has numbed them into passivity. Last year, we were talking – in theory, at least – about the legally binding cap on the world’s carbon emissions, because the world’s scientists say this is the only thing that can preserve the climate that has created and sustained human civilization. What are we talking about this year? What’s on the table at Cancun, other than sand?

Hari’s extended riff on the “great ecological crash” we’re staring in the face is well worth a read — he’s a compelling writer — and he articulates all too well the reality of the huge disconnect between the evidence piling up that we need to act fast and the complacency of the international realpolitik.

The Economist joins the chorus with perhaps the ultimate in negative perspectives. In an editorial the magazine declares:

In the wake of the Copenhagen summit, there is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam. Perhaps, after a period of respite and a few climatic disasters, it will get going again. It certainly should. But even if it does, the world is going to go on getting warmer for some time.

The chance of hitting a 2ºC target has passed. It’s now time to focus on adapting to the inevitable:

Though they are unwilling to say it in public, the sheer improbability of such success has led many climate scientists, campaigners and policymakers to conclude that, in the words of Bob Watson, once the head of the IPCC and now the chief scientist at Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Two degrees is a wishful dream.”

The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over. Analysts who have long worked on adaptation to climate change—finding ways to live with scarcer water, higher peak temperatures, higher sea levels and weather patterns at odds with those under which today’s settled patterns of farming developed—are starting to see their day in the uncomfortably hot sun.

What’s left is planning to adapt, and The Economist does a characteristically through job of providing an overview. I’d say it was notably optimistic in the face of the climate numbers — particularly those presented in a “theme issue” of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society AFour degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications. [All the papers in the special issue are available free until Nov 30, and many beyond that date.] The Guardian does a good job of summarising the bad news:

Rachel Warren, at the University of East Anglia, described a 4C world in her research paper: “Drought and desertification would be widespread … There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on [wild] ecosystems. Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

Warren added: “This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes [and] an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. In such a 4C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world.”

Another Met Office study analyses how a 4C rise would differ from a 2C rise, concluding that threats to water supplies are far worse, in particular in southern Europe and north Africa, where regional temperatures would rise 6-8C. The 4C world would also see enhanced warming over most of the US, Canada and northern Asia.

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), “the prognosis for agriculture and food security in a 4C world is bleak”, according Philip Thornton, of Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute, who led another research team. He notes there will be an extra billion people populating Africa by 2050.

Expectations for Cancún are low, but the stakes just keep on getting bigger. The next two weeks will give us an idea which way the chips are falling. Hot Topic will once again be featuring guest posts by Oxfam NZ’s Barry Coates, who is already in Cancún, plus I’ll add comment as news catches my attention. You can also follow the NZ Youth Delegation at their blog.

For more detailed news, there’s the International Institute for Sustainable Development‘s Reporting Services’ coverage, including their Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a daily update of events. iPhone owners can even download a UNFCCC app, Negotiator, designed to keep you up to date with COP 16 news — even read conference papers. Slightly more quixotic is the Twitter newspaper The unfccc-ipcc-cop Daily at It’ll be interesting to see how that goes…

And finally: we can expect more comedy gold as the Scaife-funded Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow is flying Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley into Mexico to bring his unique brand of, er, something or other to proceedings. He’ll even have Roy Spencer to act as his bag man… I confidently expect high jinks.

I wish it would rain

We (or at least some of us) rightly feel apprehension and alarm at the prospect of melting glacial and polar ice. There are new reminders that we should be equally alarmed at the prospect of Amazonian drought. Joe Romm has written a lengthy post on Climate Progress drawing attention to the 2010 drought which may prove more widespread and severe than the 2005 drought, itself identified as a 1-in-100-year type event.  He quotes an email to that effect from forest scientist and Amazon expert Simon Lewis (he of the Sunday Times fightback and subsequently granted apology).

Lewis recommends an article in the Global Post which is well worth reading.  It refers to three scientists. Oliver Phillips, a tropical ecology professor at the University of Leeds, speaks of his concern that parts of the Amazon may be approaching a threshold point beyond which the eco-system can’t go. He led a team of researchers who studied the damage caused by the 2005 drought which caused a massive die-off of trees and led to the forest expelling carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it. He’s worried that another severe drought is following so soon after the last one.  Greg Asner, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, points out that some tropical forests in the world now are starting to be exposed to temperatures they’ve never experienced. His studies show that higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall could leave as much as 37 percent of the Amazon so radically altered that the plants and animals living there now would be forced to adapt, move or die. Foster Brown, an environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre, comments that drought has made ecosystems so dry that instead of a being a barrier to fire, the forest became kindling.

Nikolas Kozloff’s book No Rain in the Amazon which I reviewed earlier this year refers to much-cited scientist Philip Fearnside of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, who for some years has observed the connection between drought and El Niño-like conditions which are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming. He too is concerned that the Amazon might dry out and be placed in jeopardy as a result of climate change. Kozloff also reports the belief of some researchers that warming sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean are linked to Amazon drought.

In an October press release Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) comments:

“The drought of 2010 still hasn’t ended in the Amazon and could surpass that of 2005 as the region’s worst during the past four decades… Even if this doesn’t occur, the forest will have already experienced three extreme dry spells in just 12 years, two of which occurred during the past five years: 1998, 2005 and 2010. And this is not including the drought of 2007, which affected only the Southeastern Amazon and left 10 thousand sq. km. of forest scorched in the region…`The Amazon that had wet seasons so well-defined that you could set your calendar to them – that Amazon is gone,’ says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of IPAM…”

Deforestation of the Amazon by humans has long been a major international concern, and Simon Lewis’s communication with Jo Romm indicates that there is a degree of good news on that front in that since 2005 deforestation rates have been radically reduced. But the droughts are bad news. They kill trees and promote damaging fires, “potentially leading to a drought-fire-carbon emissions feedback and widespread forest collapse”. Lewis expresses particular concern that while two unusual droughts clearly don’t make a trend, they are consistent with some model projections made well before 2005: “that higher sea surface temperatures increase drought frequency and intensity, leading later this century to substantial Amazon forest die-back.”

Hot Topic commenter Tony on a previous post linked to an Al Jazeera video clip (which I’ve posted below), with the observation that if anything should motivate a sense of urgency in Cancun, what it portrayed should. Simon Lewis also linked what may be happening in the Amazon to the Cancun conference. Not with any great expectation, but with a dry reminder that the risks to which we are exposing humanity don’t diminish because we ignore them. “While little is expected of the climate change talks in Cancun next week, the stakes, in terms of the fate of the Amazon are much higher than they were a year ago in Copenhagen.”

I hope it doesn’t appear as incidental if I note before concluding that the droughts affect not only the forest and through it the welfare of the whole planet but also the local populations whose livelihood and wellbeing is jeopardised. The Global Post article reports the anxiety of village chief Mariazinha Yawanawa. Her people are sustained by the forest. They hunt in the woods, fish the rivers and grow crops in the clearings where they live.  “Everything has changed. We don’t know when we can plant. We plant and then the sun kills everything. If it continues like this, we expect a tragedy

[The Temptations]

China: ready to pay the price

ames Hansen was in China when the American midterm elections were held, and he reports that while the rest of us were feeling pessimistic he was becoming optimistic. Not because of what was happening in the US, but because of China. He found two reasons for optimism, the first of which he has explained in a poston his website. The second will follow, but there’s enough in the first to warrant notice here.

In the activist dimension of his life – which he always makes clear is an expression of personal opinion and in this respect differentiated from his scientific work – Hansen opposes cap and trade approaches to limiting carbon emissions as ineffective and instead advocates a steadily rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies and returned to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations.


He considers there are signs that China is ready to consider a rising carbon price as part of a clean energy transition. At the Beijing Forum he attended he was impressed by what he described as the focused rational approach to dealing with the challenges, epitomized by Dr. Jiang Kejun (pictured), the lead speaker in the session “Global Environmental Policies and National Strategies”.

“Jiang Kejun laid out sector-by-sector projections of transitions to low-carbon and no-carbon energies and improved energy efficiency that would allow CO2 emission growth to be slowed and then reversed over the next few decades. Technology development is supported, and, when lower carbon technology becomes available, efficiency standards are promptly ratcheted downward. Most encouragingly, there is recognition that this strategy requires a rising carbon price for most successful results. The Chinese authorities appear to grasp that rapid attainment of the tipping points at which clean energies quickly displace dirty energy requires an economic incentive.”

Hansen remarks the advantages of the scale of manufacturing in China. It is so great that the unit price of new technologies can be quickly brought down, putting China in a position to sell carbon-efficient technologies to the rest of the world.

He compares the prevention of effective legislation by vested interests in the US with his impression that China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. He notes that the leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient. The power of fossil fuel interests is not as strong as in the US.

Hansen’s earlier view was that global action to stem climate change required agreement between China and the United States for a rising carbon fee. He acknowledges this is not realistic as the dysfunctional Congress would not approve such a treaty.

However, he sees a way around that. He envisages China finding agreement with other nations such as the European Union to impose rising internal carbon fees. And here’s the crunch:

“Existing rules of the World Trade Organization would allow collection of a rising border duty on products from all nations that do not have an equivalent internal carbon fee or tax.”

And the consequence:

“The United States then would be forced to make a choice. It could either address its fossil fuel addiction with a rising carbon fee and supportive national investment policies or it could accept continual descent into second-rate and third-rate economic well-being. The United States has great potential for innovation, but it will not be unleashed as long as fossil fuel interests have a stranglehold on U.S. energy policies.”

Nicholas Stern doesn’t share Hansen’s impatience with emissions trading schemes, but it is worth noting that he sounded very similar trade warnings in Auckland in September where he was delivering the Douglas Robb lectures. The world is embarking on a “new industrial revolution” of renewable energy and cleaner innovation, he told the Herald. Countries which don’t embrace it will find other countries reluctant to trade with them. Ten or fifteen years from now, those that produce in dirty ways are likely to face trade barriers.

However it is obtained, a rising price on carbon is an essential element in the transition to clean energy, and trade concerns may well play a part in making it global. Hansen insists that only a tax can achieve it, but there are indications that China is also considering a cap-and-trade system. Either way contributes to the seriousness Hansen discerns in China’s planning towards the transformation of its currently carbon-dependent economy.

The gas almost works (more methane)

Atmospheric methane levels continued to increase in 2009, the World Meteorological Organisation’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (summary PDF) confirmed this week. Methane averaged 1803 ppb over the year, up 5 ppb on 2008, and now contributes 18.1% of the radiative forcing caused by current greenhouse gas levels. The Bulletin suggests that “likely causes were above average wetland methane emissions due to exceptionally warm temperatures at high northern latitudes in 2007 and heavy precipitation in tropical wetlands in 2007 and 2008. However, it cautions that the reasons for the recent increases are not yet fully understood.”

A hint that the rise might be continuing this year is contained in this rather striking graph of methane levels recorded recently at the Mt Zeppelin recording station (a misty mountain?) in Ny Ã…lesund, Svalbard…

Continue reading “The gas almost works (more methane)”

(2) Degrees of existence

According to a UN Environment Programme report released yesterday, The Emissions Gap Report – Are the Copenhagen Accord Pledges Sufficient to Limit Global Warming to 2° C or 1.5° C? (summary PDF), if the planet is to have a reasonable (defined as 66%) chance of limiting warming to 2ºC, global emissions will have to peak before 2020, with emissions in 2020 of around 44 GtCO2e and reducing sharply thereafter. The report assesses the Copenhagen Accord pledges as likely to deliver best case 2020 emissions of about 49 GtCO2e. — leaving a “gap” of at least 5 GtCO2e between commitments and ambition. A “lenient” interpretation of the Accord could result in emissions little different to business as usual.

In order to close that gap, the report suggests that countries could adopt higher conditional targets, avoid the use of surplus emissions units (so-called “hot air”), and ensure strict rules for land use change and forestry carbon accounting. The good news is that the report suggests this might be possible. The bad news is that to have a reasonable chance of hitting a 1.5ºC target emissions will have to reduce by 4 – 5% per year after 2020, and move into negative (removing carbon from the atmosphere) territory after 2050. The report suggests this could be done by huge afforestation projects and using biomass energy generation with carbon capture and storage.

The UNEP report is part of the stage setting for the COP16 conference in Cancun beginning next week. More coverage at the BBC, Independent, and Guardian. Richard Black at the Beeb puts the worst case in the lead:

The promises countries have made to control carbon emissions will see temperatures rise by up to 4ºC during this century, a UN report concludes.

Ban Ki-moon was a bit more up-beat (that’s his job):

“I encourage all Parties to make good on their national mitigation pledges, and to further progress within the negotiations as well as through strengthened efforts on the ground to curb emissions. There is no time to waste. By closing the gap between the science and current ambition levels, we can seize the opportunity to usher in a new era of low-carbon prosperity and sustainable development for all.”

Sounds good. Sounds implausible. The gap between commitment and ambition is big and getting bigger by the day. Even a global recession could only trim last year’s emissions by 1.3% compared with the year before, as emissions growth in China and India more than made up for falls in the US, EU and Japan. The UNEP report suggests that there’s still a way to avoid the most damaging warming, but a look at ambitions for Cancun indicates the political will is lacking.

[Update: Barry Brook has a guest post from Tom Wigley looking at the likely climate system response to achieving zero emissions by 2050.]