Don’t worry Kyoto (National’s Only Looking Out For Its Friends)

The New Zealand government has announced that the country will not join the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (CP2), but will instead make voluntary commitments within the Kyoto framework [Herald, NBR]. Climate change minister Tim Groser presented this move as:

…aligning [NZ’s] climate change efforts with developed and developing countries which collectively are responsible for 85% of global emissions. This includes the United States, Japan, China, India, Canada, Brazil, Russia and many other major economies.

To put it another way, New Zealand has chosen to abandon the 36 countries already signed up for CP2 — which runs from 2013 to 2020 — and instead aligns itself with the world’s worst polluters. Ironically, Groser rejected CP2 on the same day that Australia, only recently equipped with a meaningful carbon emission reduction scheme, announced it would sign up. The move completes the National-led government’s programme of gutting and dismembering the climate policies it inherited from the last Labour-led government when it took power in 2008.

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The verdict on Durban – a major step forward, but not for ten years

In this guest post, Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, High Tide and The God Species, advisor to the president of the Maldives, analyses the outcome of the Durban conference and what it means for the future of international climate negotiations. It’s one the best and most detailed accounts I’ve come across, from someone at the heart of the action. This article was first published at his personal blog.

Following the marathon negotiations session at Durban, all the delegates should now be back home – and if not quite rested, certainly ready to assess the outcome with the benefit of some distance. In this (rather long) post I will look at the key documents agreed in the Durban outcome, and try to offer some sense of what they mean for the climate regime, and for the climate. (Apologies for some jargon, and for unexplained acronyms, which should be familiar to anyone following the negotiations, and without which this post would be even longer still.)

The Durban mandate

During the second week of COP17 the South African presidency operated an ‘Indaba’ system of high-level meetings, where an options paper was gradually whittled down into a decision text on the crucial issue of the future legal form of the UNFCCC regime. Various iterations of this paper produced some rollercoaster ups and downs from the perspective of a small islands state delegate (as advisor to the President, I once again joined the Maldives delegation). The final version, agreed in the small hours on Sunday 11 December — nearly 48 hours after the COP was supposed to have concluded — is titled ‘Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action'(PDF link).

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The God Species

It’s an arresting title, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. For author Mark Lynas the Holocene, the 10,000 year post-ice age era during which human civilisation evolved and flourished, has given way in industrial times to the Anthropocene, an age in which the human population has undergone extraordinary growth, and become totally dominant on the planet. In the process we have interfered in the planet’s great bio-geochemical processes to the extent that we are threatening to endanger the Earth system itself and our own survival. Things are badly askew and we must help Earth to regain stability. It cannot do so alone. “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”

Not that Lynas proposes to shoulder nature aside. Far from it. It’s a question of restoring nature’s balance and working within its limits. His book is about the planetary boundaries which must be respected if we are to avoid very serious environmental damage. He aims to communicate to a wide audience the findings of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who a couple of years ago identified nine such boundaries and wrote about them in a notable feature in Nature. Along the way he has his own suggestions for tackling the challenges involved and takes issue with other environmentalists over what he considers wrong-headed stances on many issues, including nuclear power and genetic engineering. This aspect of the book is often argumentative, but the central exposition of the planetary boundaries is straight science, set out with the lucidity apparent in his earlier book Six Degrees.

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Days of future passed

The idea that a rise in global temperature of no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels is a safe target for the world to aim for is widely accepted in political forums where the measures needed to stay within that range are considered. Not universally accepted though. The small island states and many others of the least developed countries already impacted by climate change are adamant that 1.5 degrees is the highest rise that should be considered safe.

Indeed one wonders what the reasoning of the more powerful nations has been in settling on the two degree target. When Mark Lynas trawled through predictions in scientific journals for his book Six Degrees (review here) he found plenty to disturb at two degrees, including  possible desertification and abandonment of agriculture over millions of square kilometres in the US, an extremely hot and drought-ridden Mediterranean Europe, an ice-free Arctic ocean with implications difficult to measure, the bleaching and likely death of many coral reefs, major loss of food production in India, serious population displacement in Bangladesh.

Now Chris Turney (pictured) and his University of Exeter colleague Richard Jones have reported their attempt to reconstruct the temperature during the Last Interglacial between 130,000 and 116,000 years ago. Their paper is published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.  Turney explains its significance in his blog, where he writes:

“Temperatures appear to have been more than 5˚C warmer in polar regions while the tropics only warmed marginally; strikingly similar to recent trends. Not only this, but taken together, the world appears to have been some 1.5˚C warmer when compared to the 1961 to 1990 average. If we take into account the rise in temperature that has happened since industrialization, we find the Last Interglacial was around 1.9˚C warmer. Furthermore, this period also shows the warming in the Indian and Southern oceans took place before that of the northern hemisphere, suggesting these regions may cause further global warming beyond that directly forced by increasing greenhouse gas levels.”

It’s important to recognise what impacts that level of temperature rise brought. Turney points out that we know there was a dramatic decrease in polar sea ice coverage while large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melted. Critically, he says, the warmer temperatures appear to have helped global sea levels become some 6.6 to 9.4 metres higher than today, with a rate of rise of between 60 to 90 millimetres per decade, more than double that recently observed.

Let’s return to today’s “safe target” notion of no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.  Here’s one of the key messages from the EU reference document explaining the scientific background for that target:

“Global mean temperature increases of up to 2°C (relative to pre-industrial levels) are likely to allow adaptation to climate change for many human systems at globally acceptable economic, social and environmental costs. However, the ability of many natural ecosystems to adapt to rapid climate change is limited and may be exceeded before a 2°C temperature increase is reached.”

If Turney and Jones’ estimation of the temperature in the Last Interglacial is correct it suggests that  sea levels will rise significantly higher than anticipated. How a sea level rise six to nine metres higher than today could be adapted to “at globally acceptable economic, social and environmental costs” rather beggars the imagination.

So far as Turney is concerned, “The inevitable conclusion is emission targets will have to be lowered further still. Not a popular message.”

It has been apparent for some time that ice sheets are showing signs of less stability than was expected. It is not news that sea level rise this century looks likely to be higher than the IPCC estimates (a possibility recognised in the IPCC report itself). But what Turney and Jones add is evidence that the past may be offering us a specific guide as to what sea level rise we would need to  prepare for if we allowed a two degree temperature rise.

Turney is a geologist whose interest is in researching the past, particularly in relation to climate. His excellent book Ice, Mud and Blood was reviewed on Hot Topic last year. He has continued to figure from time to time on the site because of his connection with the New Zealand firm Carbonscape. We noted his recognition last year by the Sunday Times as one of the modern-day heroes of science and technology.

He finishes his blog with these words:

“Crucially, the scientific and policy implications of the Last Interglacial demonstrate it pays to look back to yesteryear. As the great poet and playwright Thomas Eliot once wrote, ‘Time present and time past, are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.’ Fingers crossed these words are heeded.”

Fingers crossed indeed. Against the seemingly unstoppable drive to exploit fossil fuels we need some signs of hope that society’s leaders are going to wake up to the dangers we are heading for. There are glimmers, as I pointed to in my post yesterday, perhaps even gleams if William Hague is representative, but a far wider section of our political and economic leadership needs to become fully acquainted with the lessons from the past.

Gareth adds (because he was going to blog this, but Bryan got his post in first)]: The period that Turney and Jones are considering — the last interglacial (LIG), better known (at least to me, though Turney’s blog provides other names) as the Eemian, is interesting because it provides an example of where we may be heading. During the LIG CO2 peaked at under 300 ppm, and sea levels were 6m to 9m higher than present, with rates of sea level rise of at least 6cm to 9cm per decade. The last time CO2 was at 300 ppm was before Dave Keeling started taking accurate measurements in the late 50s (it was about 312 ppm in 1958, and we’re nudging 390 ppm at present). In other words, the equilibrium response (that is, the long-term — century to millennial scale — response, when the oceans and ice sheets have had a chance to catch up) to the greenhouse gas levels more than 50 years ago is sea level at least 6 metres higher than now — and as Turney and Jones find, a global average temperature 1.9ºC above pre-industrial. The 2ºC “target” being bandied around as “achievable” (50% odds only) at 450 ppm is likely to be a mirage — it might hold true in the short term, but 450 ppm commits us to something well beyond the LIG/Eemian, when, as you will not need reminding, there were crocs and hippos in the Thames. When James Hansen was looking at long term targets, he selected 350 ppm as compatible with a planet with ice sheets at both poles. Turney and Jones synthesis of data on the Eemian suggests that if that’s our goal we need to be looking at 300 ppm — and a much bigger task. Over to Bill

Turney, C. S. and Jones, R. T. (2010), Does the Agulhas Current amplify global temperatures during super-interglacials?. Journal of Quaternary Science, 25: 839–843. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1423

[Moody Blues]

After Copenhagen: new world disorder

coplogoIt’s a bit like reading the runes — trawling through reactions to the events of the last couple of weeks, trying to work out what the Copenhagen Accord means. I don’t mean a parsing of the words, though translating the language of diplomacy is never trivial, but what the various parties to the Accord, and the rest of the world, think it means — and crucially, what that implies for future action to reduce emissions.

For background, read this excellent BBC analysis of Copenhagen, and Joe Romm’s interesting take at Climate Progress (which refers to Bill McKibben’s reactions at Grist, plus there’s a more considered McKibben article at e360), but the article that really helped to crystallise my thoughts is Mark Lynas’ insider’s account of the final phases of negotiations:

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