21 Jun 2010: Analysis

A Grim Outlook for Emissions
As Climate Talks Limp Forward

In the wake of the failed Copenhagen summit, prospects for cutting global CO2 emissions are worse than they’ve been in years. With talk of mandated cuts now fading and with countries exploiting loopholes, the world appears headed toward a flawed agreement based not on science but on politics.

by fred pearce

Those who thought the failed Copenhagen climate talks last December were a diplomatic nadir, from which only recovery was possible, are in for a shock. Since then, efforts to refloat the talks have seen a lot of ballast thrown overboard — including most of the scientific underpinnings of a deal to protect the world from dangerous warming. If a deal is finally done, probably in South Africa at the end of 2011, it may prove a diplomatic success but a climatic catastrophe.

In his time as the UN’s chief climate negotiator, Yvo de Boer has had a simple take on his job. It is to cajole 192 nations into agreeing to a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that will deliver what those countries say they want — a world in which global warming is kept below 2 degrees Celsius. That is what scientists say is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. It requires, as a down-payment, that industrialized countries cut their emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels within the next decade and that by 2020 global emissions will have also peaked and begun to decline.

But in the final weeks before he gives up the job at the end of June, de Boer is pessimistic that it will happen. The failure of talks in Copenhagen last December leaves him concluding that nations are unwilling to make
Climate negotiators talk of healing rifts. Healing the climate is taking second place.
the necessary sacrifices to achieve their stated goal. “As things stand now, we will not be able to halt the increase in global greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 years,” he told delegates during resumed negotiations in Bonn early this month. The dapper Dutch diplomat — who has a passion for his cause that left him shedding tears on stage three years ago in Bali — said in Bonn: “The 2-degree world is in danger.”

His successor, Costa Rican ambassador Christiana Figueres, is a cooler customer. In low-profile briefings in Bonn, she declared: “It is not my mandate to set objectives. There is a process underway of rebuilding trust.”

The contrasting characters — one the advocate in a diplomat’s suit, the other a handbag-wielding conciliator — personify an important change going on in the climate talks after Copenhagen. Alarmed by the divides that opened up in the Danish capital, the talk now among climate negotiators is of healing rifts and finding common ground. Healing the climate is suddenly taking second place.

Interview: Despite Rough Ride,
Yvo de Boer Departs an Optimist

Yvo de Boer
Even after the failure to reach agreement on binding CO2 cuts in Copenhagen, outgoing UN chief climate negotiator Yvo de Boer is confident that the world is making progress on global warming. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he said the key is convincing all nations, particularly developing ones, that tackling climate change is in their long-term economic interest.
For three years negotiators tried to draw up a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012. They wanted to combine new, tougher targets that finally included the U.S. with the legally binding language of the Kyoto deal. That was the task they set themselves in Bali in 2007 and expected to conclude in Copenhagen.

But, after the Copenhagen failure, that is all unravelling. What looks likely to emerge at talks in South Africa at the end of 2011 — the new target date for a completed deal — is a consensual accord. One with promises of emissions cuts rather than fixed enforceable commitments. And one, as de Boer tirelessly pointed out in Bonn, shorn of its scientific umbilical cord.

Rather than the 25 to 40 percent cut that science says is necessary, developed nations have pledged cuts that work out, according to de Boer’s secretariat, at a total of 12 to 19 percent – less than half as much. “Copenhagen has created conditions which make it probable its own target will not be met,” says Alex Evans of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, author of an upcoming history of the geopolitics of climate negotiations.

The only visible outcome of the Copenhagen talks was the Copenhagen Accord. This hastily-created agreement between 25 leading nations, headed by the U.S. and China, brought uproar to the end of the Copenhagen conference. Intended to break a negotiating logjam, it only created further bad feeling.

Its inadequacies are plain. While it promised to deliver a maximum warming of 2 degrees, it did not include the means, since it simply invited
Many say it will be impossible to hold any country to account for failing to meet its Kyoto targets.
nations to submit non-binding commitments. While including long-term goals for cutting emissions in 40 years, it avoided a commitment to peaking global emissions before 2020. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the economics of a post-Copenhagen environment, Yale economist William Nordhaus says: “It is unlikely that the Copenhagen temperature goal will be attained even if countries meet their ambitious stated objectives under the Copenhagen Accord.”

Nonetheless, the terms of the accord are now being written into a new UN negotiating text that will form the basis of negotiations over the next 18 months. Some, particularly European governments, hoped at the time that the accord could eventually be adopted with legally binding teeth. But even that now looks unlikely, say negotiators. In talks in Bonn this month, the European Union was the only group actively supporting legally binding targets. As one of EU delegate told me: “We are still in favor of a new Kyoto Protocol, but we cannot do it alone.”

The extent of the climb-down now underway is evident in the pledges made in Copenhagen. China, for instance, said it would reduce the “carbon intensity” of its economy by 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It sounds impressive. But China has one of the most carbon-intensive economies on the planet — and the improvement amounts to nothing more than business as usual. It has been making improvements at a similar rate since 2005.

Copenhagen Climate Talks
Mads Nissen/Getty Images
Delegates at an all-night meeting at the Copenhagen climate talks.
In the U.S., the Obama administration’s emissions promises depend on legislation. Passing a climate bill was a top priority for Obama in his early days. He wanted completion in time for Copenhagen. But legislation remains mired on Capitol Hill, and even optimists do not expect any outcome before 2012. Nordhaus says: “Continued delay in adoption of climate-change policies by the United States may lead to a domino effect in which other countries follow the U.S. inaction.”

In any event, the U.S., which never signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, has irritated those countries that did sign on by wanting to have a baseline of 2005 for its own emissions in any new deal — effectively writing off its 16 percent emissions growth between 1990 and 2005.

And Canada, which did sign on to Kyoto but has taken few steps to meet its targets, says what is good enough for the U.S. has to be good enough for Canada, too. Many say it will be impossible to hold any country to account for failing to meet its Kyoto targets.

The European Union, which has always seen itself in the vanguard of action on climate change, is also back-peddling. It recently announced that even though new analysis suggested that it would be cheaper than anticipated to cut its emissions by 30 percent by 2020, its plans to do so had been put on hold.

And there is worse. Many of the pledges currently on offer are likely to be undermined by huge loopholes in existing and proposed rules for industrialized countries. Three topics loom large: “hot air,” international transport, and carbon emissions from forests.

“Hot air” is insider jargon for the emissions permits handed over to former Soviet nations that did not need them because their industries collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The majority are owned by Russia and the
Loopholes seem to be encouraged as a way of easing negotiating deadlocks.
Ukraine, who are likely to hold unused permits to emit up to 10 billion tons of CO2 at the end of 2012. They want to bank them — and sell them to other nations to offset their own emissions in subsequent years. If the countries of the European Union bought those permits, they would be enough to achieve the entire 20 percent emissions reductions the EU has promised, right through to 2020.

Then there are loopholes that allow emissions from forestry to escape carbon accounting. Again, they are huge. New Zealand has met its Kyoto targets by planting commercial forests and claiming them as a carbon sink. Fair enough. But under current rules, according to Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand, the country will not have to account for the 90 million tons of carbon emissions that will be produced when those forests are logged in the 2020s. Russia says it will reduce its commitment to cuts from 25 percent to 15 percent if a loophole concerning how it accounts for its forest carbon is removed. Canada and Austria have similar issues for partial carbon accounting.

Talks on bringing emissions from international shipping and aircraft within the rules, deemed essential before Copenhagen, formed no part of the Copenhagen Accord and seem no nearer to resolution than in Kyoto 13 years ago.

Under de Boer, such loopholes were to be closed. In the new diplomacy, they seem positively to be encouraged as a way of easing negotiating deadlocks. Russia, for instance, is likely to get its way. Together, the loopholes could reduce the promised cuts in developed countries’
The chances of meeting the 2-degree challenge posed by scientists look increasingly remote.
emissions from 12 to 19 percent to somewhere between a 2 percent cut and a 2 percent increase, according to a European Union study published in March.

How will this play out for the planet? Nordhaus has looked at the implications of five possible scenarios. They range from business as usual, through various versions of a deal based on the Copenhagen Accord, to a policy based on a strict 2 degree C limit on warming.

Business as usual sees atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at almost three times pre-industrial levels by 2100, putting the world on a path to peak warming of a terrifying 6.7 degrees C — 12 degrees F. The existing Copenhagen Accord proposals would see eventual warming of more than 4 degrees C, while a deal in which developing countries eventually adopted Western-style emissions limits would still likely cap warming at nearer 3 degrees C than two.

As the diplomatic dance over a deal on climate blunders on — looking ever more like the protracted Doha talks over a world trade deal — the chances of meeting the 2-degree challenge posed by scientists look increasingly remote.

Talks in Bonn ended early so delegates could head off to their hotel rooms to watch the World Cup. In the language of soccer, the result in Bonn was: Diplomats 3, Climate nil.

POSTED ON 21 Jun 2010 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America 


Since there is virtually zero chance that the Chinese, Indians, Russians, Brazilians, and many more will be even slowing down their construction and use of coal fired power plants, if you really believe that catastrophic results are coming maybe it would be helpful to begin working on adaptation.

I personally think the catastrophe predictions are just so much hype in search of money, but maybe you think differently. Sea levels are rising at about 3 millimeters per year, and that amounts to about about six inches for the last fifty years. How does that square with the scare publicity about disappearing islands and flooded coastlines?

Temperatures are rising by maybe 0.2 C per decade, if you believe the numbers produced by those whose jobs and money depend on warm temperature histories. So if that continues for another fifty years we would see another whole degree added to average temperatures.

Posted by cagw_skeptic99 on 21 Jun 2010

Maybe the author's framing of the issue has been overtaken by events? For a different take on these diplomatic realities - the facts of which I do not dispute - see my Eureka Street essay "Reviving Climate Hope"


Posted by tony kevin on 22 Jun 2010

With CO2 rising at an unprecedented rate of over 2ppm a year- and now over 390- it seems unlikely there will be a peak in emissions by 2015- or even 2020.

A 3 C degree rise is almost certain by the last 21st century-

The current stasis on climate change has many reasons.A highly paid group of special interests spreading misinformation-along with the far right.

And a media seemingly unaware or afraid to release information that is so troubling- becasue of fear of conservative sponsors.

Until more catastrophic weather events, obvious shifting of climatic regions, agricultural failures, drought, floods, tropical cyclones wildfires and increasing and very noticeable changes in the seasons - there will be no action.

By then however, the chance of stopping at a 3 degree rise by late century be also be lost.

Posted by Peter on 22 Jun 2010

What does seem clear is that the prospects of a global deal are not good at the moment. However, there are still signs that progress can be made by major countries and regions making progress on their own, and the hope has to be that these efforts lead to a global deal. As a recent Due South blog points out (http://www.iied.org/sustainable-markets/blog/silver-or-grey-linings), the EU has a golden opportunity to take advantage of the fall in its emissions caused by the recession, and make its targets more ambitious, although to do so will of course mean facing down the interest groups that will oppose such a move. There are also positive developments in China and India, both of which are starting to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies. Of course this is not enough, but it is wrong to say that all hope has been lost.

Posted by DueSouth on 24 Jun 2010

China and India will change their minds when their agriculture collapses, which is starting to happen. The U.S. will "only" suffer higher grocery prices at the same time. 2 degrees short term is 4 degrees long term. The politicians don't know this and the scientists aren't sure when the natural feedbacks will kick in.

So we are left with hoping that Nature will put on some kind of a "demonstration" of her power while we still have time to act. Make no mistake; Nature is in charge, not humans.

Posted by Asteroid Miner on 24 Jun 2010

If only humans we would ever pay half of that attention to "Arctic amplification" and "East Siberean methane shale deposits" that goes to soccer these days


Posted by perceptiventity on 29 Jun 2010

There is too much phony money floating around in the climate. Renewables are unsustainable financially, and you could write and talk forever and not change that. It is interesting that reasonable and nice people can be on such opposite ends of this debate. But there is no argument for financial sustainability. It's all subsidies, tax credits, RECs, handouts and guesswork. Sure, come to my house and donate a solar or wind power system and I would be fine with that. But I won't then brag that I'm doing my part. Sufficient power is not possible without coal - period. The masses will never be able to afford the options, especially because the options (except for nuclear) are IMPOSSIBLE.

Posted by T Backman on 02 Jul 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the Copenhagen climate talks and the fallout from the “Climategate” incident.



Should Polluting Nations Be
Liable for Climate Damages?

An international agreement to study how to redress developing nations for damages from climate change illustrates how ineffective climate diplomacy has been over the last two decades. But this move may pave the way for future court suits against polluting countries and companies.

Forget the Kyoto Accord
And Tax Carbon Consumption

Given the failure of international climate negotiations, a tax on carbon consumption is the most effective way of lowering CO2 emissions. If nations are serious about addressing climate change, then they must pay for the carbon pollution caused by what they consume.

Europe’s CO2 Trading Scheme:
Is It Time for a Major Overhaul?

Now in its seventh year, the EU’s carbon emissions trading system is the only international program designed to use market mechanisms to control CO2 emissions. But critics contend it has done little to slow the release of CO2 and argue that it should be significantly reformed — or scrapped.

Did Cancun Prove the UN
Irrelevant in Tackling Climate?

The Cancun conference is being credited with keeping international climate talks alive. But the real potential for bringing emissions under control may lie in a Plan B, with nations acting on their own in moving toward a low-carbon economy.

Despite Rough Ride on Climate,
Yvo de Boer Departs an Optimist

Even after the failure to reach agreement on binding CO2 cuts in Copenhagen last December, the United Nations’ outgoing chief climate negotiator is confident that the world is making progress on global warming. The key, he says, is convincing all nations, particularly developing ones, that tackling climate change is in their long-term economic interest.


MORE IN Analysis

With Trump, China Emerges
As Global Leader on Climate

by isabel hilton
With Donald Trump threatening to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, China is ready to assume leadership of the world’s climate efforts. For China, it is a matter of self-interest – reducing the choking pollution in its cities and seizing the economic opportunities of a low-carbon future.

What a Trump Win Means
For the Global Climate Fight

by david victor
Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency signals an end to American leadership on international climate policy. With the withdrawal of U.S. support, efforts to implement the Paris agreement and avoid the most devastating consequences of global warming have suffered a huge blow.

The Methane Riddle: What Is
Causing the Rise in Emissions?

by fred pearce
The cause of the rapid increase in methane emissions since 2007 has puzzled scientists. But new research finds some surprising culprits in the methane surge and shows that fossil-fuel sources have played a much larger role over time than previously estimated.

As Arctic Ocean Ice Disappears,
Global Climate Impacts Intensify

by peter wadhams
The top of the world is turning from white to blue in summer as the ice that has long covered the north polar seas melts away. This monumental change is triggering a cascade of effects that will amplify global warming and could destabilize the global climate system.

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

by nicola jones
Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.

Wildlife Farming: Does It Help
Or Hurt Threatened Species?

by richard conniff
Wildlife farming is being touted as a way to protect endangered species while providing food and boosting incomes in rural areas. But some conservation scientists argue that such practices fail to benefit beleaguered wildlife.

What Would a Global Warming
Increase of 1.5 Degrees Be Like?

by fred pearce
The Paris climate conference set the ambitious goal of finding ways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the previous threshold of 2 degrees. But what would be the difference between a 1.5 and 2 degree world? And how realistic is such a target?

After Paris, A Move to Rein In
Emissions by Ships and Planes

by fred pearce
As the world moves to slash CO2 emissions, the shipping and aviation sectors have managed to remain on the sidelines. But the pressure is now on these two major polluting industries to start controlling their emissions at last.

Abrupt Sea Level Rise Looms
As Increasingly Realistic Threat

by nicola jones
Ninety-nine percent of the planet's freshwater ice is locked up in the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. Now, a growing number of studies are raising the possibility that as those ice sheets melt, sea levels could rise by six feet this century, and far higher in the next, flooding many of the world's populated coastal areas.

How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

by richard conniff
Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.