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CLIMATE CHANGE, COPENHAGEN AND PUBLIC OPINION

Posted 21 November 2009

"With the Copenhagen climate change conference just over two weeks away, President Obama and other heads of government have now publicly accepted what has been clear for some time: COP 15 will not result in a new post-Kyoto treaty, binding signatories to agreed emissions reduction targets. Whatever political statement is agreed to by the 12,000 plus delegates from 192 countries (plus numerous NGOs) expected to be in the Danish capital for the conference from December 7 to 18, it is impossible for this to have any meaningful effect on global emissions for several years."  -  The Scientific Alliance, UK

 

     

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20th November 2009

 
Climate change, Copenhagen and public opinion

With the Copenhagen climate change conference just over two weeks away, President Obama and other heads of government have now publicly accepted what has been clear for some time: COP 15 will not result in a new post-Kyoto treaty, binding signatories to agreed emissions reduction targets. Whatever political statement is agreed to by the 12,000 plus delegates from 192 countries (plus numerous NGOs) expected to be in the Danish capital for the conference from December 7 to 18, it is impossible for this to have any meaningful effect on global emissions for several years.

 

First, a binding treaty has to be agreed, working from the draft 181 page document and debating detailed alternative wording line by line. Next, it has to be signed by as many countries as possible. Then it must be ratified by a certain number before it can come into force (it was several years before Russia 's ratification finally activated the Kyoto protocol). It is unthinkable that the treaty has any chance of having the intended effect if any of the major players - the USA and China in particular - fail to ratify, and getting to this stage could be a long haul. Then, and only then, would the agreement be implemented. At this final stage, if Kyoto is anything to go by, it will in any case be unsuccessful. The signatories will simply fail to deliver on what they have signed up to.

 

World leaders have segued from claiming that agreement of a new treaty at Copenhagen was essential ( Gordon Brown was not the only one to make apocalyptic remarks about having X days to save the world) to a more realistic lowering of expectations. This is normal before summits: people are led to expect that little will be decided, so that any positive outcome can be hailed as a triumph. In reality, the fine words will mean nothing unless they are acted upon.

 

In the meantime, a carefully orchestrated run-up to Copenhagen is subjecting policymakers and the public to a constant stream of analysis, projection and new studies to hammer the message home that we could be heading for a catastrophe and that urgent action must be taken. This week, for example, saw the publication of a paper in Nature Geoscience by Professor Corinne Le Quere (of the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey) and a number of co-workers from the Global Carbon Project (GCP) network.

 

Entitled 'Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide', it generated headlines about the possibility of a 6° average temperature rise. A rise of greater than 2° has been considered to be the threshold of 'dangerous' warming, and a recent conference highlighted the dire effects of a 4° rise; anything greater than that could become very nasty indeed.

 

This conclusion is based primarily on the pattern of rising global emissions: up by 29% between 2000 and 2008, largely due to accelerated growth in China and other rapidly developing countries. Of course, it is not the emissions per se but the amount of carbon dioxide which stays in the atmosphere which is important if the enhanced greenhouse effect is indeed the main driver of current climate change. The GCP team believes that the oceans and plants are losing some of their capacity to act as carbon sinks. However, they admit a high degree of uncertainty - it is a fiendishly difficult problem to estimate the components of the carbon cycle with any accuracy - and other scientists take a different view. There is, not unexpectedly, a reliance on computer models, themselves based on hypothetical positive feedback mechanisms.

 

Another key issue highlighted in the study is the extent to which growth in the Chinese economy is fuelled by their exports of goods to the EU and USA . This is said to account for a quarter of the growth in emissions. To look at it another way, emissions by the UK fell by 5% from 1992 to 2004, but the total emissions associated with consumption of goods and services rose by 12%. Some commentators see this as an unwelcome trend: rich countries exporting their emissions to poorer ones. Others take the view that the West's appetite for low-cost imports is driving growth of the Chinese economy and hence improving the lot of its citizens. Targeting emissions reductions based on consumption in the EU and USA would - if effective - have a direct and damaging effect on the growth of China , with unknown consequences for world security.

 

To get all major economies to sign up to a new climate change treaty will mean balancing the need not to reduce economic growth in the developing world with the desire to make large cuts in emissions. This would require a major capital flow from the industrialised to the developing world to enable the Chinese, Indians and others to continue increasing their energy use while cutting emissions.

 

Given the rate of growth of the Chinese economy, this will only serve to reduce carbon intensity and slow the rate of emissions in the short term; it would be some time before an emissions peak was reached. In the meantime, it is difficult to see global emissions following anything other than a rising trend for some years yet, with or without a successor to Kyoto .

 

To meet their targets, Western countries would have to invest heavily in costly, low-carbon energy sources at the same time as funding similar investments in the major developing countries. Given the parlous state of most industrialised countries' finances, these two large additional items of expenditure - which sceptics would say were unnecessary - could cripple their economies and sharply reduce their capacity to buy Chinese imports. The net result would be to hold back growth in China and the whole world, at considerable direct and indirect cost. Critics of this view would make the case for creation of 'green' jobs and continued 'clean' growth but, like most economic projections, this should be treated with caution.

 

Whatever the outcome, governments (with the possible exception of China and a few other authoritarian regimes) first have to get the consent of their citizens to enact the necessary policies. This has never been easy, but recent opinion polls suggest that support is ebbing away. Constant scary headlines and advertising have failed to convince the man or woman in the street of the problem, and arguably have had the opposite effect.

 

Currently, there is also a very public demonstration of an attempt to garner support which has gone awry and could turn out to be counter-productive. The Science Museum in London is running an initiative (at the museum and on-line) called 'Prove It!'. The museum is presenting evidence for the mainstream view on climate change and is asking for people to count themselves in or out based on the statement "I've seen the evidence. And I want the government to prove they're serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen ."

 

As of 6pm on 19 November, 4,911 people had counted themselves in, and 7,463 had counted themselves out. This looks unlikely to give the strong supportive message the British government would like to see.

 

 

The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242

 

Last Updated ( Friday, 20 November 2009 )
 
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