Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bali: good to talk, but hold your breath 'til '09

The IPPC report issued at the weekend was the last warning salvo fired by the scientific community at heads of government before the next round of significant talks between them over what to do about climate change when the Kyoto agreement runs out in just over four years' time.

In the 'Washington Declaration' agreed on February 16, 2007, Presidents or Prime Ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa agreed in principle on the outline of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

They envisage a global cap-and-trade system that would apply to both industrialized nations and developing countries, and hoped that this would be in place by 2009.

At these talks, to be held from 3-14 December in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, it is doubtful whether anything meaningful will be achieved, a source close to the British team which has been out there preparing for the talks for some time, has told me.

However, useful horse-trading and line-drawing will be done.

The British position is essentially that the timing is right for a significant breakthrough in a couple of years, but that we have to wait and hope that Bush's successor will be more onboard.

If it's Hillary Clinton, then it's assumed she will sign up to carbon reduction targets, taxes, and trading.

The next United States presidential election is scheduled to be held on November 4 next year.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who will host the talks, commented on the IPCC's pronouncements by singling out the United States and China, the world's top two emitters of greenhouse gases, which have no binding goals for curbs, as key countries in the process.

"I look forward to seeing the US and China playing a more constructive role starting from the Bali conference," Ban told a news conference. "Both countries can lead in their own way."

Ban said he had just been to see ice shelves breaking up in Antarctica and the melting Torres del Paine glaciers in Chile. He also visited the Amazon rainforest, which he said was being "suffocated" by global warming.

"I come to you humbled after seeing some of the most precious treasures of our planet - treasures that are being threatened by humanity's own hand," he said.

"These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie," Ban said. "But they are even more terrifying, because they are real."

The summary says human activity is causing rising temperatures and that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, are needed quickly to avert more heat waves, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

The scientists and officials from the 130-state Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) boiled down the findings of three reports of more than 3,000 pages issued this year and said ths time it hadn't been watered down.

"The strong message of the IPCC can't be watered down - the science is crystal clear. The hard fact is we have caused climate change, and it's also clear that we hold the solution ... in our hands," said Hans Verolme, Director of environmental group WWF's Global Climate Change Programme.

Sources close to the discussions said the US had tried to change or even remove a key section of the report which lists five main reasons for concern about the effects of warming.

"This has been a very tough week and we've had to debate and defend everything we wanted but the draft report that we submitted has remained intact and has even had additions made in terms of emphasis and even facts that have come to light," IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri told Reuters.

"When you're on strong scientific ground, you don't yield any ground. We have to make sure that scientific truth is not supressed."

Summary of the findings

  • "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level."
  • "Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in ... greenhouse gas concentrations" from human activities.
  • Global total annual greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have risen by 70 percent since 1970. Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, far exceed the natural range over the last 650,000 years.
  • Temperatures are likely to rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 Celsius (2.0 and 11.5 Fahrenheit) and sea levels by between 18 cms and 59 cms (seven and 23 inches) this century.
  • Africa, the Arctic, small islands and Asian mega-deltas are likely to be especially affected by climate change. Sea level rise "would continue for centuries" because of the momentum of warming even if greenhouse gas levels are stabilised.
  • "Warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible". About 20-30 percent of species will be at increasing risk of extinction if future temperature rises exceed 1.5 to 2.5 Celsius.

Five reasons for concern

  • Risks to unique and threatened systems, such as polar or high mountain ecosystems, coral reefs and small islands.
  • Risks of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and heatwaves.
  • Distribution of impacts - the poor and the elderly are likely to be hit hardest, and countries near the equator, mostly the poor in Africa and Asia, generally face greater risks such as of desertification or floods.
  • Overall impacts - there is evidence since 2001 that any benefits of warming would be at lower temperatures than previously forecast and that damages from larger temperature rises would be bigger.
  • Risks or "large-scale singularities", such as rising sea levels over centuries; contributions to sea level rise from Antarctica and Greenland could be larger than projected by ice sheet models.


  • Governments have a wide range of tools -- higher taxes on emissions, regulations, tradeable permits and research. An effective carbon price could help cuts.
  • Emissions of greenhouse gases would have to peak by 2015 to limit global temperature rises to 2.0 to 2.4 Celsius over pre-industrial times, the strictest goal assessed.
  • The costs of fighting warming will range from less than 0.12 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) per year for the most stringent scenarios until 2030 to less than 0.06 percent for a less tough goal.
  • In the most costly case, that means a loss of GDP by 2030 of less than 3 percent.

What is the IPCC?

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in 1988 by the UN Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization to give governments scientific advice about climate change.
  • Run from Geneva, it draws on work by about 2,500 climate scientists from more than 130 nations and has issued three reports so far this year, totalling more than 3,000 pages. The previous set of reports was in 2001.
  • The IPCC was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former US Vice President Al Gore.

What is the summary?

The IPCC condenses the main findings of three reports earlier this year:
  • In February, the IPCC squarely blamed mankind for global warming. It said it was "very likely" or more than 90 percent probable that human activities led by burning fossil fuels had caused most of the warming in the past half century.
  • It said warming was "unequivocal" and projected a "best estimate" that temperatures would rise by 1.8 to 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) this century.
  • In April, the IPCC outlined the likely impacts of warming and said rising temperatures could lead to more hunger, water shortages and ever more extinctions of animals and plants.
  • It said crop yields could drop by 50 percent by 2020 in some countries and projected a steady shrinking of Arctic sea ice in summers.
  • By the 2080s, millions of people will be threatened by floods because of rising sea levels, especially around river deltas in Asia and Africa and on small islands.
  • In May, in a third report on confronting climate change, the IPCC said costs of action could be moderate, or less than 0.12 percent of global gross domestic product a year, but that time was running out to avert the worst effects. The toughest scenario would require governments to ensure global greenhouse gas emissions start falling by 2015.

Previous reports

  • The IPCC's first report in 1990 outlined risks of warming and played a role in prompting governments to agree a 1992 UN climate convention.
  • In 1995, the IPCC concluded that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate", the first recognition that it was more than 50 percent likely that people were stoking warming. The report paved the way to the Kyoto Protocol, now the main UN plan for curbing warming.
  • A 2001 IPCC study said there was "new and stronger evidence" linking human activities to global warming and that it was "likely", or 66 percent probable, that humans were the main cause of warming in the past half century.

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