Global Warming Negotiations Heat Up

From Reason and Tech Central Station, continuing coverage of the COP10 negotiations in Buenos Aires


As negotiators in the capital of Argentina hammer out the next stage of the The Kyoto Protocol climate treaty, two important questions remain unanswered: whether the Kyoto signatories can find a compromise to bring the United States back into the agreement, and whether the protocol's environmental goals are worth the effort.

The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect on February 16, 2005. Russia finally approved the treaty in October which needed to be ratified by the developed nations that account for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to become legally binding on the world's 39 richest countries. Last week, 5,400 delegates from 189 countries convened in Buenos Aires for further climate change treaty negotiations at the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change's Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10). Environment ministers from 90 countries are expected to attend the final three days of negotiations beginning on Wednesday. The COP10 of negotiations will conclude on Friday, December 17.

Under the Kyoto Protocol developed countries agree to reduce their average emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide by 5.2 percent (using their 1990 emissions as a baseline) by 2012. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide which is accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide levels have increased from 280 parts per million in 1750 to 372 ppm today. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat as it is being radiated out into space and re-radiate it back toward the surface. The chief greenhouse gas is water vapor. Without water vapor, the Earth's average surface temperature would be well below freezing. Computer climate models predict that extra greenhouse gases will heat the atmosphere and create a positive feedback loop increasing the amount of water vapor, further boosting global temperatures.

President George W. Bush withdrew the Kyoto Protocol from consideration in 2001. Had the United States ratified the treaty, the country would have been committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below its 1990 level. According to Harlan Watson, who is the U.S. Senior Climate Negotiator in Buenos Aires, the United States will emit about 16 percent more greenhouse gases in 2010 than it did in 1990. So in order to meet the Kyoto targets, the United States would have to cut its projected emissions by 23 percent over the next 6 to 8 years. The only way to achieve such reductions would require steep cuts in energy use.

There are a number of estimates of the costs of implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Yale University economist William Nordhaus has calculated that it would cost $716 billion, and that the United States would bear two-thirds of the global costs. In any case, even if Kyoto Protocol reductions are achieved, those cuts in greenhouse gases will reduce the projected amount of warming by no more than 0.2 degrees Celsius in 2050.

In Buenos Aires, the climate negotiators are now looking at what comes after the Kyoto Protocol. Sir David King, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief science adviser, has declared that future agreements should seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60 percent by 2050. However, realizing such steep reductions will not be easy. In 2002, top scientists, reviewing the world's options for steep reductions in greenhouse gases in Science, concluded that such deep reductions are impossible to achieve using current technologies.

In 2000, the environmental think tank Resources for the Future issued a cost-benefit analysis of ambitious near-term greenhouse gas emissions restrictions. "A striking finding of many I(ntegrated) A(ssessement) models is the apparent desirability of imposing only limited GHG controls over the next 20 or 30 years," reported the RFF researchers. "According to the estimates in most IA models, the costs of sharply reducing GHG concentrations today are too high relative to the modest benefits the reductions are projected to bring."

Negotiators and environmental activists in Buenos Aires will be focusing on a proposal called "contraction and convergence" (C&C). The core of the idea is to set an appropriate level to which greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be allowed to rise and then allocate globally the right to emit carbon on a per capita basis. The UNFCCC commits signatories, including the United States, to the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

"Dangerous" has never been defined, but the proponents of contraction and convergence suggest that levels of greenhouse gases be stabilized at 450 parts per million (ppm) to 550 ppm. In order stop at those levels it is estimated that global carbon emissions will have to be cut by 60 percent—the contraction part of the scheme. Under a C&C regime, each country would initially be allocated a portion of an overall declining carbon budget based on its share of the global distribution of income. Over time, to achieve convergence, each year's ration of the global carbon emissions budget for each country progressively converges to the same allocation per person until they become equal by an agreed-upon date. This will allow poor countries relatively greater freedom to use carbon energy sources to fuel their further economic development.

The other main goal of the Buenos Aires conference will be an effort to rope the United States into signing the Kyoto Protocol or a subsequent climate change treaty. "The best thing for all the international community now would be to discover and design a formula that will bring the U.S. back to the fold," declared Raul Estrada, Argentina's ambassador for environmental matters. At the moment that does not seem a likely prospect. "It's very premature to enter into negotiations on a post-2012 regime," said Watson, the U.S. Climate negotiator.

I will be posting daily reports from Buenos Aires covering the scientific presentations, the negotiations and the lobbying efforts of environmental organizations for the next week.