Science & Technology

Discussing Climate Change In Kenya

World leaders meet to discuss improbable solutions to a questionable problem that may not be solvable.


Over 5000 climate change negotiators from 189 countries began meeting last week in Nairobi, Kenya and will end their deliberations on November 17. The goal of the 12th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP-12) and the second Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP-2) is to begin the process of figuring out what to do about greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol commitment period ends in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol obliges 35 industrialized nations to cut their domestic emissions by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The Kyoto Protocol applies to countries that emit about 30 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. The United States, which emits about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, and Australia have not signed the Protocol.

Some recent studies argue that greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed almost immediately in order to achieve the UNFCCC's goal of avoiding "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." For example, the Left-leaning British Institute for Public Policy Research issued an alarming report last week claiming that humanity has "only ten years to save the planet." The IPPR asserts that "global emissions of CO2 peak within ten years and fall by 70 to 80 per cent by 2050, we will face an unacceptable risk of causing a rise of more than 2°C, which would result in dangerous and irreversible impacts."

Just how difficult (and how unlikely) that goal is was underlined by the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2006 which was also issued last week. The WEO 2006 projected that with current policies world energy demand would be 50 percent greater than today in 2030 and emissions of carbon dioxide would rise by 55 percent above current levels. Even if the world adopted all of the IEA's proposals for investing in nuclear power, biofuels, renewables, and increased energy efficiency, world demand for energy would still increase by 37 percent and carbon dioxide emissions would be 39 percent higher in 2030. The WEO 2006 also predicts that China will surpass the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases by 2010. In addition, researchers at the Global Carbon Project report that emissions of the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, grew 4 times faster between 2000 and 2005 than they did in the 1990s, rising from 0.8 percent per year to 3.2 percent per year. This occurred, in part, because China is building coal-fired electric generation plants at a rate of one every 3 to 4 days.

Two weeks ago—just before the climate change delegates gathered in Nairobi– the British government issued the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change that offered a scenario in which unmitigated climate change would result in the loss of between 5 and 20 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100. The report concluded that this could be avoided by spending 1 percent (about $450 billion) per year of world GDP today to keep greenhouse gas concentrations below 550 parts per million (ppm). This provoked a spate of headlines warning that the battle to prevent climate change must begin now. The alarming conclusions of the Stern Review are have been challenged by, among others, skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg and Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Interestingly, the British business magazine The Business reports that a leaked draft of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change upcoming Fourth Assessment Report calculates that achieving the goal of limiting greenhouse gases to 550 ppm could cost as much as 5 percent of global GDP. If the IPCC's calculations are correct, the article notes, "they open up the possibility that the British proposals would cost as much as they save, making them redundant." Of course, trying to predict global GDP a century from now is probably even harder than trying to predict global average temperatures in 2106.

The first meeting of the Kyoto Protocol signatories in Montreal, Quebec last year required that negotiations to set tougher caps on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 begin at the Nairobi meeting. It appears that negotiators are unlikely to agree to any such new goals by the end of the week. Part of the reason is that the world is waiting to see how U.S. policy might change when Kyoto-rejectionist President George W. Bush leaves office after 2008. In addition, the big developing countries like China, India and Brazil are resisting the imposition of binding limits on their emissions. Without them, any man-made climate change would be delayed by just a few years.

In any case, I will be reporting developments from the conference and the associated activities of various lobbying and activist groups with daily dispatches beginning on Tuesday, November 14.

Disclosure: I gratefully acknowledge that the International Policy Network in Britain is paying my expenses to cover the conference in Nairobi. Here's what the folks at Exxonsecrets say about IPN and here's what they say about me.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.