Crunch year for environmental policies
As the world's attention continues to focus on the economy, 2009 will be a critical year for environmental politics. The crucial Copenhagen summit in December is now imminent and the key question is what international response there will be to the pressure to negotiate a binding and effective post-Kyoto treaty. The outcome of last month's Poznan conference was a bare minimum commitment to a deal in Copenhagen, hedged with ifs and buts. Nevertheless, the great majority of mainstream environmentalist organisations are pinning their hopes on progress this year and investing enormous amounts of time and effort to achieve what they consider to be a successful outcome.
Not least among the factors which will determine the situation in a year's time is the stance taken by President Obama . In the Kafkaesque world of climate policy, the USA has been the bad guy for not ratifying the Kyoto protocol (although by many measures the country has been rather more successful in limiting emissions than many ardent Kyoto supporters in the EU and elsewhere) and President Bush the arch-villain (despite the refusal to ratify occurring under the Clinton/Gore administration). Obama was elected with a promise of change to come, but his appointments so far have been generally soundly pragmatic rather than radical.
He has appointed cabinet members with impeccably green credentials to advise on environmental issues, and been applauded by the climate change lobby for that. But this does not mean that America will suddenly become a leader in international initiatives. Obama has shown himself capable of picking a team of well-regarded experts without simply following the doctrinaire line which some of his supporters may have wished for. Ensuring the support of the green lobby at this early stage was simply good politics and, although he will be careful not to sideline his advisers, his way ahead is likely to be quite cautious.
The US political system has a well-defined set of checks and balances. Obama may be nominally the most powerful man in the world after inauguration day, but he cannot act alone. In particular, international treaties have to be approved by the Senate, and this is where the Kyoto protocol failed under Clinton , by a 95-0 vote. He is unlikely to want to repeat that experience, so enormous lobbying and consultation efforts would be made to ensure an increased chance of success before a treaty was presented for ratification. Given the short time between taking power and the Copenhagen conference, there is also a reasonable likelihood that final agreement would be delayed into 2010 to allow the USA to prepare the ground properly for its own policy proposals.
But America is only one part of the jigsaw, albeit an important one. The EU sees itself as the global leader in emissions reduction (although evidence shows this to be more in theory than practice), but will commit itself to only a 20% reduction by 2020 unless a comprehensive international agreement is reached under which all signatories make deeper cuts.
China , India and other rapidly developing countries are an increasingly important part of the equation, with China in particular now the largest net emitter of carbon dioxide. They had no obligations under the Kyoto protocol, but their inclusion in the next phase would be vital. But these countries will not make serious reductions without massive funding by the West, and commitment to this is likely to be increasingly difficult at the recession deepens. Only when the USA , the EU and China have reached an agreement they find acceptable will the outline of a global treaty be set.
But, given the prospect of negotiations stretching into 2010 and with ratification taking a further significant time, what are the real chances of Kyoto II coming into force, let alone being adhered to? The seemingly inexorable pressure for a deal means that the great majority of politicians are publicly committing themselves to achieving this. However, words have rarely been backed by deeds, and the more pragmatic politicians will surely be looking for a face-saving way to avoid bringing in economically damaging policies unless electorates really show themselves willing to make personal sacrifices in the name of long-term altruism.
The omens do not look good for a new deal. The climate change lobby desperately needs 2009 to break records for high average temperatures and extreme weather. Summer ice melt in the Arctic in 2008 was hyped, but the winter growth seems to be more rapid than usual. The year as a whole gave miserable summer weather to many, and there has been no upward trend of temperatures since the highs of 1998, despite steadily rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. If the long-established link between solar activity and climate holds, the very low sunspot numbers at present suggest a cooling rather than warming trend.
With this backdrop, and with the new US administration quite legitimately wanting to extend deadlines for agreement, the chances of a new deal emerging from Copenhagen seem low. And if current climate trends continue (and who knows if they will, since we still do not fully understand what drives them) the chances of meaningful commitment to much more stringent emissions cuts must surely fade as decision dates get put back.
Failure to agree and make real cuts, at a time when global climate fails to develop as computer models demand, will be cataclysmic for the environmentalist movement, for whom this debate has been top of the agenda for years. The crunch may come before the end of 2009, with realists increasingly concentrating on real and present issues such as conservation and pollution while a provisional wing continues to insist on humankind's blighting effect on the planet and continues to fight to control the climate. Time will tell.
Negative feedback in the climate system
The dire predictions of many mainstream climate scientists are predicated on positive feedback mechanisms. In particular, the established small temperature rise associated with increasing levels of carbon dioxide is said to be amplified by resulting higher levels of water vapour in the air. However, little attention is paid to possible negative feedbacks, which could result in a self-stabilising system.
It was proposed some years ago that fertilisation of the oceans with iron would allow the growth of vast quantities of algae which would mop up "excess" carbon dioxide. Now, a team led by Rob Raiswell of Leeds university has found that icebergs deposit very fine iron particles into the Southern Ocean as part of a natural cycle (their work was published in Geochemical Transactions in December). Iron is incorporated in ice as it moves across the underlying rock. If temperatures rise, more icebergs calve and the Southern Ocean (low in nutrients) is fertilised and algal growth promoted.
The likely effect is now to be tested by controlled fertilisation of an area of ocean, but this group of scientists does seem to have come across an important self-regulating mechanism. There is a danger that researchers look only for evidence which supports the scientific orthodoxy, and a more open-minded and objective approach is to be both encouraged and applauded.
The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242