Sunday, 20 December 2009

Warming to the argument, Part 2

So the Copenhagen climate change conference is over, with some good news as well as bad news.


On the good news side, China and the US have actually managed to agree something. On the bad news side, it was not enough to meet UN targets of limiting rises in global temperatures to 2C above pre-industrial levels, and most of the other countries there might as well not have turned up. The other countries and in particular the EU could have failed to "take note of" the US/China accord, which was supported by Brazil and India, as a protest, but since the accord was not approved at the conference - unanimity would have been required for approval and that was not available from those countries who stand to be flooded by it - that would only have been symbolic. Also on the good side, it looks as if some concerted action will be taken on deforestation, which as I mentioned in Part 1 has a significant impact on the earth's carbon sink.

On limiting temperature rises, the accord stated that "We shall, recognising the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2C, on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development, enhance our long-term co-operative action to combat climate change." The accord did not in fact on its words adopt 2C as a target, even as a non-binding one, but instead "recognised" it as "the scientific view". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which is the author of this scientific view recommends that to meet a 2C target, developed countries must cut emissions by at least 25% from 1990 levels by 2020, and that global emissions must peak and begin to decline by 2020 at the latest. The accord came up with no collective target to cut emissions to achieve this and it did not specify a year at which emissions are to peak.

Because of the weak formulation of the agreement between the US and China, the EU did not offer, as it was prepared to do, to move its current target of a 20% cut in emissions by 2020 to 30%, and Australia and Japan stuck to their minimum offers. These offers will now be considered at the next round of discussions in Mexico next year, but China, India and Brazil will not it appears accept independent verification of whether they will meet whatever is agreed because of concerns about national sovereignty (or, put more succinctly, they do not like being pushed around by the west given that the west is still the largest global producer of human induced carbon dioxide).

The IPCC view is that what looks to be on offer for Mexico will cause global temperatures to rise by around 3C, but this seems to be about the best that can be achieved at the moment. As I mentioned in Part 1, feedback effects make it difficult to say for sure what the final result of the expected levels of carbon dioxide to be put into the atmosphere will be, because how the oceans will react to these rises is still subject to research.

Subsidiary issues

I have three other subsidiary thoughts. First, some of the remarks made about China: if I were in the Chinese government I would be somewhat annoyed about these. China may by now be putting into the atmosphere about the same amount, or slightly more, carbon dioxide than the US, but if so it is still way behind in emissions per head. China has a population of around 1,300 million, and the US around 310 million. There seems to me to be some hypocrisy at work here in order to force China to a (necessary) deal.

Secondly, despite forcing China into a deal it is not a foregone conclusion that President Obama will get the modest commitments made by him for the US through Congress, and in particular the Senate. The US is a wonderful but strange country (I was partly educated there and I like the place), but part of its strangeness is the anti-science views held by some of the right wing in the Republican party, where science sometimes seems to be viewed as a test of one's faith rather than representing any objective reality, supported in part also by the view that concessions are for wimps and inconsistent with the country's national prestige. I have noticed that this tinge of irrationality seems to be affecting some of the right wing political blogs in the UK now also (we have sites referring to the IPCC as "climate cooling deniers"), but this seems partly for the fun of having a good argument, partly a dislike of Gordon Brown and partly because those interested in politics tend not to know much about science.

Thirdly then, Gordon Brown. Readers of this blog will know I do not like the Gordon Brown/Ed Balls/Charlie Whelan axis of fixers which now charts the direction of the Labour Party in the lead up to next year's election, and which I happen to think the Labour party will end up regretting and find quite damaging to them. I also happen to think that Gordon Brown is unelectable. And I think his major role, with Donald Dewar, in bringing forward devolution for Scotland in a way which is seriously unfair to people in England, in order to retain electoral advantages for the Labour party in forming a UK government, is to be seriously deprecated. And I think he is now being reckless with the public finances (and also that his agreement with the French to tax the City to produce money for the global warming fund for developing nations shows an astonishing lack of grasp of the national interest1).

However, on climate change the fact of the matter is that he has been putting in significant good work, and I do not think this was just political posturing with an eye to next year's election. I must give some credit where it is due.


1 This fund is one of the good news parts of the accord. But putting a specific tax on the City is madness.

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