Monday, December 07, 2009

Copenhagen will Miss the Mark

At the G8 and G20 meetings this year, world leaders agreed that it was critical that the mean global temperature not be allowed to increase above 2C from a baseline of pre-industrial temperature levels. To achieve this, massive cuts in CO2 emissions are required, since this, according to some scientist, is the probable major cause of global warming.

To ensure that this happens, CO2 emissions will need to peak at or around 2015 or 2016 – just a few years away. After that, the emissions reductions being committed to by nations around the world have then to show a four per cent annual decline each year until the target reduction of ninety percent on 1990 levels has been achieved by 2050 or sooner. Even with this, there is only a 50-50 chance that the temperature would stabilize at the higher 2C level, according to the Hadley Centre. This strategy – known as decarbonising our economies – is very challenging. The argument is that the consequences of not achieving these emissions reductions on this time table are even more challenging and chilling.

Now two of the worlds leading climate change scientists – James Hanson of NASA’s Goddard Centre in New York and Professor Kevin Anderson, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester – are both suggesting that the targets under discussion at Copenhagen and the mechanisms for achieving them will not be enough.

Most of the targets under discussion place emphasis on large cuts after 2020 but modest cuts up to 2020. The targets offered are based on a reading of the political reality that decarbonizing an economy is a massive political challenge. Canada and the US, who have now harmonized their CO2 emissions reduction strategies, are offering just a 3% cut on 1990 levels. China, which opens a new coal fired power plant every other day, is also offering modest reductions.

The Hanson-Anderson argument is that we must be aggressive to achieve the planned CO2 peak by 2015 or 2016, otherwise all of the models offered by scientists and economists will lead to higher temperatures than planned. The proposals under discussion at Copenhagen would suggest a peaking of CO2 levels in 2030 or later, far too late to stop the rise in temperature to the 2C. While some countries are now pushing for this temperature rise to be targeted at 1.5C, since even 2C has massive consequences, especially for the small islands, no one has a decarbonization plan to match this lower temperature target.

Hansen has suggested that the implications of this analysis are clear. The target should be a very high reduction of CO2 by 2020 and a completion of the project – ninety to ninety five percent reductions – by 2030. Only then could we shift the odds in favour of achieving the 2C stabilization the world has committed to.

Both Anderson and Hansen understand that the achievement of steeper reductions in CO2 emissions at a more rapid rate is politically difficult, if not impossible. It requires a sudden and massive shift of resources away from oil, coal and other carbon burning energy sources and into renewable energy as well as a change in the worlds system of transportation. Air transport, the car and other means of petroleum based travel would become taxed at such a level as to make such travel a rare rather than a regular event. Energy costs would rise massively, dislocating economies and causing energy poverty. Politicians would find trying to sell massive pain now so that children not yet born could be the beneficiaries a difficult, to say the least, proposition to sell. But they are offering a scientific analysis of the situation, based on computer models, not a political prescription.

The consequence of their analysis, however, is that Copenhagen may produce a framework agreement with the full details to be worked on during the coming year, but that this agreement may not be sufficient to ensure that the effects of climate change are managed such that some of the more dire consequences are alleviated, if not avoided completely. Hansen has said that he hopes Copenhagen fails, since he does not see it as offering anything like the solution needed. Anderson, who is less polemic than Hansen, suggests that the “wealthy nations need to peak emissions by around 2012, achieve at least a sixty per cent reduction in emissions from energy by 2020, and fully decarbonize their energy systems by 2030 at the latest”. He understands that this is beyond anything on the table at Copenhagen.

If these two scientists, highly regarded as leading climatologists, are right then whatever happens at Copenhagen will be a helpful development, but insufficient to achieve the intended target of holding the world’s rise in temperature to just 20C above pre-industrial levels. The summit moves the world along the right road, but not at all fast enough to avoid a collision between economic development and the dire consequences of climate change.

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