COP 18: Bridging the gulf between science and reality

In theory the slew of recent climate studies should inspire the delegates that have assembled for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18). In practice the 194 nations that are meeting in Doha, Qatar, are getting bogged down by the same old arguments.

The consensus once again this year appears to be that nothing will be accomplished. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convened these negotiations almost two decades ago and in all that time, we have seen very little meaningful action on the primary issue of curtailing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Since 2000, the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased almost 20 percent and there is an ever widening gap between what governments are doing to curb emissions and what needs to be done.

Recent reports on GHGs and global warming

The climate data from numerous sources conclusively makes the point that we are heading towards calamity. More than a dozen studies made this point just ahead of the climate talks in Doha.

A number of scientist have warned that time is running out to avert a climate catastrophe. While they acknowledge that it is still possible to stave off the worst effects of climate change, they note that the window of opportunity is rapidly getting smaller.

In November, the World Meteorological Association’s (WMO) annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin indicated that global atmospheric carbon levels are at 391 parts per million, the highest they have ever been in human history. Scientists warn that 350 parts per million is the upper limit for a stable planet. Levels of CO2 have been steadily rising at about 2 parts per million every year for the past decade. Current measurements of atmospheric carbon are 40 percent higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Since the dawn of industrialization in 1750 humans have emitted 375 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The WMO Bulletin indicates that future emissions will make the situation far worse.

The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contributed to the WMO report by providing data published in their Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI). Their report stated: “Increases in the abundance of atmospheric GHGs since the industrial revolution are largely the result of human activity and are largely responsible for the observed increases in global temperature.”

On November 12, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that ongoing reliance on fossil fuels will make it impossible to curtail climate change. They further state that renewable energy is being neglected in favor of coal, oil, and natural gas.

In a November 13 press release, Renewable Energy Industry (IWR) indicated that last year’s GHGs reached a record high. In total, there were 34 billion tons of GHG emissions in 2011, which is 800 million more tons than in 2010.

On November 18, the World Bank issued a report suggesting that the climate could warm a full 4 degrees by the end of the century. The study further suggests that we will not be able to avert this temperature increase even in the unlikely event that countries fulfill their current emissions-reduction pledges.

On November 21, UNEP issued a warning saying that we are on the brink of a climate catastrophe. The UN Environment Program’s Emissions Gap Report 2012 indicates that there is a massive gulf between what governments have pledged in terms of GHG emissions and what they are actually doing. To stave off a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), nations have pledged to reduce their emissions a total of 44 gigatonnes (Gt) by 2020. However, the UNEP report indicates that if we stay on our current trajectory of increasing emissions, we are likely to see temperature increases of 3-5 °C. According to UNEP, the gap between GHG emission reduction pledges and what is actually being done is 8 Gt of CO2 by 2020, which is 2 Gt higher than last year’s assessment.

Also in November, Price Waterhouse Coopers offered its own climate change warning in a report titled Too Late for Two Degrees? According to this study, it may already be too late to keep global temperatures within the scientifically agreed upon upper threshold of 2°C.

In November, the World Resources Institute (WRI) put forth its own warning in a report titled Global Coal Risk Assessment. As reviewed in this study, proposed coal projects around the world will quadruple the current capacity of all coal-fired plants in the US. The report found that there are 1,199 new coal power plants in the works, totaling more than 1.4 million megawatts of capacity worldwide.

On December 2, researchers affiliated with the Global Carbon Project released a report titled, The Challenge to Keep Global Warming Below 2 degrees C. The study concludes that it is becoming increasingly unlikely that we will be able to keep temperatures within acceptable upper limits. Emissions continue to grow so quickly that without immediate action, we will not be able to stay within the upper temperature limit established by scientists.

Reports on sea level rise

According to a November 27th study, the ocean is rising much faster than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A number of scientists are warning that we must act now to address rising sea levels. They indicate that rising sea levels will be disastrous, but they also say that it is still within our power to not only defend against rising tides, but also to reduce the rate at which they rise.

Rising sea levels not only imperil people, the cost to property and infrastructure amounts to trillions of dollars a year. However, if governments act now, they can significantly reduce these costs. Failure to act soon will cause the costs to increase exponentially.

The threat from rising ocean levels will impact millions of Americans, including people in Florida, Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey. In total, more than half of the US population in more than 285 cities may be at risk.

A 2011 study by the International Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) indicates that driven by warming in the Arctic and the resulting melt of snow and ice, sea levels could rise up to 5 feet by the end of this century. This is more than two and a half times higher than the 2007 projection by the IPCC.

Agenda for COP 18

As these studies reveal, the need for science driven governmental policy has never been more urgent. Despite the alarming state of affairs, the agenda for COP 18 is modest at best, with no new emissions targets and little progress expected on a new binding climate deal.

The meeting in Doha is scheduled to address a second round of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, wrap up the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) negotiating track and deal with the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).

Kyoto Protocol and a Second Commitment Period

The Kyoto Protocol (KP) is a historic agreement that legally binds developed (or Annex I) countries to emission reduction targets.  Out of the 195 signatories to the UNFCCC, 192 have ratified the Kyoto Protocol; the US is a notable exception.

One of the advantages to KP is that it includes carbon pricing in the form of cap-and-trade based policy frameworks. The KP is currently the only legally binding mechanism we have to limit international greenhouse gas emissions, but it comes to an end on December 31, 2012.

There are efforts underway to secure a second commitment period (KP2), which will start on January 1, 2013.  While KP2 has some support including counties in the EU and Australia, there is strenuous resistance from the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand.

Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA)

The discussion on LCA includes a broad range of issues including the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA), the New Market Mechanism (NMM) and more recently, the Framework for Various Approaches (FVA).

We may see some progress here.

Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP)

The ultimate goal of the ADP track is a new global climate deal by 2015 which will take effect in 2020. To develop a comprehensive agreement, the ADP needs to define specific targets, goals and actions. One of the primary goals is the establishment of a carbon market infrastructure. It should also address a funding mechanism for developing economies that leverages private sector finance as well as technology transfer and best practices for implementation.

Few believe that Doha will succeed in setting the course for the ADP. However, we may see some modest progress on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

Reducing carbon emissions from deforestation

The REDD+ framework is one of the subjects being discussed at COP 18. Clearing forests to make way for agriculture and other uses is responsible for about 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite some initial optimism, the WWF reports that developing and developed countries were at odds after Saturday’s meeting about how to verify carbon emissions from forests.

This may prove to be less problematic once the financing issue is addressed as many of the verification issues can be solved with appropriate funding.

The “Equity” problem

Throughout the course of their industrial development, wealthy countries have emitted vast quantities of GHGs, as a consequence, they have a historical responsibility for climate change. Countries that have undergone fossil fuel dependent development are also in a better economic position to contribute to climate solutions.

Current positions from many wealthy countries including the U.S. make little or no allowance for their historical responsibilities.

The question yet to be answered in Doha is: What responsibilities do different countries hold, and how can we implement climate solutions fairly?

How do we measure success?

We need to move beyond the obstacles and do more than make vague statements. We need to get serious about tangible commitments and concrete deadlines. With this is mind, success at COP 18 should be measured by what countries accomplish in the following three areas:

  1. A robust second commitment period KP2
  2. Successful closure of negotiations on LCA involving mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity-building.
  3. A way forward for the 2015 agreement involving all countries.


Success at COP 18 seems very unlikely, but we are sometimes surprised. In 2011, we saw the EU, the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries come together to get things done. Perhaps similar alliances could help us to move forward this year.

As demonstrated by the most recent studies, we cannot afford to be patient. We must strive to achieve the explicit goal of the UNFCCC which is to reduce GHG emissions so that we can limit global temperature increases.

The current inhabitants of the Earth, along with all the generations to come are counting on us to find a way to realize these lofty aspirations. While it may seem impossible from where we are today, the facts compel us to try, or die trying.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog.

This article originally appeared on the Global Warming is Real website.

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