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Archives for September 2009

Hu's talking: Who's listening?

Richard Black | 18:11 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009


"It depends..."

Thus came the initial reaction from Todd Stern, the chief US climate envoy, after China's President Hu Jintao told the special session of UN heads of government that he would set mandatory targets for improving "carbon intensity".

Hu_Jintao(In other words, between now and 2020, Chinese factories and power stations and everything else will become more efficient - making more stuff while producing less and less carbon dioxide per unit of stuff.)

Mr Hu's speech was trailed as potentially ground-breaking by no less a figure than the UN's chief climate official, Yvo de Boer, who said China could "become the front-runner" in climate diplomacy.

Did Mr Hu deliver?

"It depends..."

We don't know how big the carbon intensity targets will be, for one thing. Mr Hu described them as "notable"; if they're not notable enough, they will simply be swamped by economic growth.

(The current Five-Year Plan, running from 2006 to 2010, has a goal of improving carbon intensity by 20% during the course of the five years).

Mr Hu also re-affirmed the target of providing 15% of China's primary energy mix by 2020 from non-fossil-fuel sources - renewables and nuclear - and of re-foresting tracts of his country.

And that's about it.

His speech was heard by several key audiences.

One consisted of the other world leaders sitting in the UN chamber - and they seemed appreciative, although the clapometer didn't whizz round as far for him as for Japan's incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as he re-affirmed a pledge to slash emissions by about a third over the next 11 years.

An important sub-set of that UN chamber audience was the wider G77 bloc of developing countries with whom China is allied on most issues, and certainly on this one.

Bangladesh_floodsMr Hu made a large nod to them by referencing the needs of least developed countries (LDCs) and African nations for financial and technical support in adopting low-carbon technologies and protecting themselves against impacts of climate change.

Then there was an audience back home - all the technocrats and bureaucrats and other agents of the Chinese government who have been charged over the last few decades with growing the national economy, and who have succeeded in that task very well - perhaps too well for the country's ecological health.

Mr Hu appeared to be telling them that now they have a second key task - de-carbonising the economy while continuing to grow it.

But in the short term, his most important audience lay a few hundred kilometres southwest of UN headquarters, in Washington DC.

Some time this month, the US Senate is due to start debating the Waxman-Markey Bill, which would set emissions caps for various bits of the economy and establish a nationwide carbon market.

Senatorial scepticism on the Kyoto Protocol was a leading reason why the treaty did not deliver what it once promised; the same scepticism in regard of the UN climate process now could substantially scupper the negotiations taking place in Copenhagen in December.

And the main reason for senatorial scepticism this time round - as last - is that leading developing nations such as China aren't "doing enough".

No-one seriously expects developing countries to accept numerical cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions.

But many richer nations believe calculations (stemming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that the more successful ones, including China, must curb the growth in their emissions by about 30% from the "business as usual" trajectory by 2020 or thereabouts.

One senses that anything like 30% would be acceptable to Mr Obama's administration - but the Obama administration is not the US Senate.

If Mr Hu's words are heard in the Senate as a firm commitment to take firm action, swift passage of a strong form of Waxman-Markey becomes more likely, which in turn makes a Copenhagen deal more likely. The reverse is also true.

China_wind_farmSo how will they regard it? We shall see.

One canard that really has to be slain at some point is the notion that any of these pledges, by China or any other country, are really mandatory in the sense that you or I would understand the word.

It's mandatory that you obey the speed limit when driving, otherwise you'll be up before a judge and might lose your licence. It's mandatory that you fill in a tax return or else you're liable for a fine. It's mandatory that you feed the pet tortoise otherwise it'll die and the kids won't speak to you for a week.

But in all the fine words of the UN climate convention and Kyoto Protocol, in the language likely to come out of Copenhagen, in the UK's "legally-binding" commitment to cut emissions by 80% by 2050 and so far in China's adoption of "notable" carbon intensity targets, there is no sanction - nothing - that compels or even strongly persuades countries to meet their targets.

Mandatory? Not according to the Oxford English Dictionary definition ("binding", "obligatory", "compulsory", "not discretionary"...)

So what has come out of this UN special session, a personal initiative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon?

Too soon to tell, perhaps - but I don't think there is any chance that two years ago, you could have had the UN chief, US president, Chinese president, Japanese prime minister and the leader of a low-lying island state such as the Maldives all in the same room and all singing from broadly the same hymnsheet ("vital issue", "time running out", "need to make a deal", etc etc etc).

Whether that's enough to give UN negotiations the kick they appear to need is another matter.

"It depends..." - on a lot of things, including what lies behind the word "notable".

Fish report hits bottom note

Richard Black | 11:14 UK time, Friday, 18 September 2009


How much do you know about the splendid alfonsin?

No, me neither.

At first I thought he must be the mannish hero of some cheap boys' novella - a Pimpernel in the face of organised crime, a Zorro jumping on the cat-stroking villainry of world domination, a musketeer with liberty carved into his very eyeballs.

Somewhat disappointingly, in one sense, it's a fish.

And I know this: if trawlers used to catch 60 tonnes of them in a single hour back in the 1970s and now they catch only one tonne in an hour, something has happened to the alfonsin that he must consider entirely the opposite of splendid.

You or I might get to eat a splendid alfonsin (also known as splendid alfonsino, which is even more heroic); but we're unlikely to see one alive, as they generally live on or near the ocean floor at depths that can reach 1.3km.

For a long while after the dawn of commercial fishing, such species remained out of reach, out of sight and out of mind.

No more. As more accessible stocks dwindled, and demand continued to rise with the growing human population and affluence, ever more well-equipped fishing vessels began to target these deep-ocean species with a range of methods, the most destructive of which entails dragging five-tonne pieces of iron at the front of trawls over the sea floor - fine, if it's just sand and silt, but not so great if it's a deep-sea coral reef.


Three years ago, following a heap of pushing and prodding and repeated false starts, the UN General Assembly eventually acknowledged the possibility that soon some of these species might vanish out of sight forever unless steps were taken to protect them.

Deep-water bottom-dwellers are often slow to grow and slow to reproduce. The orange roughy can live to at least 149.

This makes them highly vulnerable to overfishing, unlike species that reproduce with great fecundity when they're barely out of the fry stage.

Conservation groups pressed the UN for a straightforward moratorium on bottom-trawling except in places where good management regimes were already established.

Enough member governments demurred to force a weakening, but what emerged was, by the standards of these things, not a bad set of measures: scroll down to "A/RES/61/105" at this research guide.

Governments promised to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), either by themselves or through regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). Where no competent RFMO existed, they would create one.

Countries would bar vessels that flew their flags from bottom-fishing in international waters where it had not been proven that no harm would come to VMEs. The precautionary principle was everywhere and most of these rules had to be put in place pretty quickly, by the end of 2008.

That 2006 resolution also instructed the UN secretary general to monitor the situation and provide a status report. It had to be ready for this year's UN General Assembly, which opens in the middle of next week.

At this moment, officials from UN member governments are in New York poring over the secretary-general's report [329Kb pdf].

It's unlikely that any of the bottom-trawling countries will find much to keep them awake at nights.

The main reason is encapsulated in a couple of sentences so strangely juxtaposed in sentiment that they could belong to different centuries; you'll find them on page seven.

The first states that submissions for the report were solicited, and did in fact arrive, from member governments, RFMOs and non-governmental organisations - which in this case mainly means conservation groups such as the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC).

The second states that the people compiling the report based it on submissions from governments and RFMOs, as well as unspecified "other relevant information".

So - er - what happened to the rest of the submissions?

The DSCC's take on this is that "the secretary general's report collated the information received on what has been done, but in doing so does not clearly show what has not been done".

For an example of what the coalition means, let's take the area managed by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC).

Coral thrown overboardThe report says that NEAFC decided to prohibit gillnets and entangling nets (which work pretty much as their name suggests) in water deeper than 200m; very good. It also agreed to "reduce all deep-water fishing effort" by one-third.

According to the DSCC, what the report omits is that gillnets and entangling nets are a minor source of catches, the majority coming from trawls - which are not banned; and that under the effort-reduction measure, the reported catch actually rose from 20,000 tonnes in 2004 to 90,000 tonnes in 2007.

And so on; there is more, much more of this.

The secretary general's report is long (67 pages), detailed and acronym-dense, and unless you readily know your PECMAS from your SIODFA you'll not find it easy going; nor will you the detailed DSCC submission [597Kb pdf].

But what it really boils down to is this. The UN resolution three years ago said, in a nutshell, "don't fish the sea bottom unless you know you can do it sustainably".

What seems to have happened in many areas of the world is that member governments have put into place regimes that say "we don't have any information to say that's not sustainable, so we'll presume it's okay to continue".

Lobbyists for fishermen may at this point wish to express concern about livelihoods; two things are worth bearing in mind.

Firstly, all governments signed up to this; anyone who doesn't like it should complain to them.

Secondly, the resolution doesn't ban bottom-fishing; it just says don't do it unless you know it won't destroy deep-sea ecosystems, such as ocean vents, or the very fish stocks you're trying to catch.

UN member states don't have to accept the secretary general's report. They're discussing it this week, and it will come up again during the General Assembly (agenda item 77b, in case you're interested).

If they're serious about making fishing sustainable, they might ask how it is that catches can rise by a factor of more than four under measures that are supposed to cap them.

They might ask why it is that in the entire north west Pacific, fishing nations have agreed to protect just one part of one seamount among many that are likely to support vulnerable ecosystems.

They might ask why protocols designed to encourage captains to move on when they realise they're having an "encounter" with a vulnerable marine ecosystem stipulate they can bring up 100kg of live coral or 1,000kg of sponges before realisation has to dawn.

Then again, they might not ask any of this; in which case, we had better enjoy the splendour of the alfonsin and all its cousins while we still can.

Sober exit from the ozone party

Richard Black | 14:55 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009


In Montreal and Nairobi - the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme, Unep - celebration permeates the air.

The occasion: that on the 22nd birthday of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, every UN member country has ratified the treaty - the first time that's happened with any international environmental agreement.

The latest adherent is East Timor, whose Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao declared his country's pride in "joining the rest of the world in the fight against the depletion of the ozone layer and the effort towards its recovery".

Having played a leading role in East Timor's push for independence, Mr Gusmao knows a thing or two about fighting long fights; and that's just as well, as it is far from clear how long the journey to ozone "recovery" is going to take.

This graph from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which collects and collates data on the Antarctic ozone "hole", makes clear that although the exact size of the hole varies from year to year, it's stubbornly resistant to going away.

Antarctic ozone hole size for various yearsThis is despite the fact that within months, the Montreal Protocol's list of banned chemicals will rise to 100 - all the variants of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrobromofluorocarbons (HBFCs) and so on whose stratospheric chemical offspring gnawed away the ozone layer as their usage soared in the determinedly white-coated years following World War II.

Why the ozone hole has not started to recover, as scientists initially believed it would, is a complex and only partially understood issue.

Firstly, not all ozone-depleting chemicals were phased out at the same time, with developing countries given longer to change over; a few substances, such as the fumigant methyl bromide, are still in use.

Xanana_GusmaoA second factor was the development of a thriving international black market.

Some companies in developing countries that were permitted to continue manufacturing and using CFCs found it more profitable to export them to western nations where they were officially banned.

At one point, the Environmental Investigation Agency estimated that CFCs ranked second only to drugs in their value to the black market stallholders of Miami.

Those days are almost over. The big industrial consumers such as refrigeration plants have largely switched to other chemicals, a process encouraged by chemical manufacturers such as Dupont.

The original bad boys, CFCs, are out of circulation (apart from possibly a few "essential uses") next year.

But many of these substances persist in the atmosphere for decades. And it appears that man-made global warming is increasing their impact.

More heat trapped in the lower atmosphere means that less permeates up to the stratosphere - which is cooling as a result.

That encourages the chemical reactions that take ozone molecules apart.

Climate change is increasing water vapour concentrations in the stratosphere above the poles. That means more polar stratospheric clouds, which again speeds ozone destruction.

The current best estimates are that the hole will be back to its pre-CFCs size by about 2050.

Paradoxically, though, the Montreal Protocol has helped to curb climate change, as some of the heavy ozone-depleting molecules are also among the most potent greenhouse gases that humanity has invented.

Antarctic_ozone_depletionA recent study concluded that the treaty has had more impact on greenhouse gas emissions than the Kyoto Protocol would do even if all its targets are implemented - which currently looks unlikely.

However, a companion study calculated that use of popular ozone-friendly replacements, HFCs, is likely to increase so fast (for air-conditioning and other applications) that they could become major contributors to global warming in the coming decades - perhaps contributing 20% of the man-made greenhouse by 2050.

That analysis prompted a number of countries, led by Mauritius and Micronesia, to suggest using the mechanisms of Montreal to regulate HFCs - an initiative that has just received backing from the three nations of North America.

As with all of the protocol's phase-outs, it will need industry support to be successful.

The Montreal Protocol is widely hailed as a treaty that has worked - and by some measures, it has, with an internationally-endorsed political process, backed up by technical and financial help for countries that needed it, leading to a phase-out of the chemicals of concern.

Unep reckons that by curbing damage to the ozone layer, it has prevented 1.5 million cases of melanoma, about 20 million other cancers, and 130 million eye cataracts.

But it's worth reflecting that if 2050 turns out to be about right, it will have taken humanity more than a century to create, understand, discuss, regulate and solve a relatively small-scale and tractable environmental problem.

What does that timescale imply for our capacity to solve biodiversity decline, ocean acidification, climatic change, the spread of deserts, and the other symptoms of our swelling human population?

Raise a glass, if you will, in Montreal and Nairobi; but a swift sobriety ought perhaps to follow.

Leaders in step on climate

Richard Black | 17:02 UK time, Monday, 14 September 2009


Last week's survey of UK attitudes towards climate change has been making a bit of news in the blogosphere - and why not, with a UN conference less than three months away that could commit countries including the UK to spending billions of dollars on the issue?

The headline numbers suggest (as my colleague Sudeep Chand wrote): "The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years."

Jack_Hughes_NZ wasn't the only person to suggest on this blog that political leaders are now the ones out of touch as they aim for a new UN climate deal.

"(Quoting Sudeep's article:) 'The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public's perception matches that of their elected leaders'.

"Let's get this the right way round, please.

"There is some way to go before the leaders' perception matches that of the public."

OIl_refineryAs always with opinion polls, it's worth digging down into the small print.

Firstly, the proportion of what researcher Lorraine Whitmarsh describes as "hardened sceptics" has not changed between the two study years (2003 and 2008), remaining roughly constant at 20%.

What has grown (from 15% to 29%) is the proportion agreeing that "claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated".

In fact, that's the only number that did change.

"There is too much conflicting evidence on climate change to know whether it's actually happening" - 35% in 2003, 33% in 2008.

"Climate change is just a natural fluctuation in Earth's temperature" - 21% in 2003, 23% in 2008.

"I am uncertain about whether climate change is really happening" - 20% in 2003, 20% in 2008.

And both of the numbers on the "climate exaggeration" issue are dwarfed by the proportion of the population (half in both years) agreeing with the statement on media exaggeration in general: "The media is often too alarmist about issues like climate change".

So one reasonable conclusion might be that half of the UK public thinks the media is too often sensationalist, and that what has increased is the proportion of the population feeling that climate change has become one of the issues that the media routinely sensationalises.

Among the emails that arrive in my inbox regularly on climate change, one sentiment expressed regularly is that the language of climate catastrophism is getting shriller and shriller as the arguments for the phenomenon collapse.

It's one that I disagree with.

I think the language of catastrophism, chaos, doom - whatever you like to call it - has actually sobered up, in the UK at least, having peaked about three or four years ago when newspapers such as The Independent ran dramatic front pages on a regular basis, a new umbrella body for activists called Stop Climate Chaos came into existence, Roland Emmerich had the Atlantic Ocean freezing in an instant in The Day After tomorrow, and a leading thinktank lambasted a portion of the British press for indulging in "climate porn".

Some long-time observers warned at the time that this would "turn people off"; the Cardiff study suggests they may have been right.

In comments on this blog and others, a different thesis is regularly proposed.

The precise words vary - the wheels are falling off the climate bandwagon, people are seeing the world's getting colder not warmer, climate change is being exposed as the tax-raising scam it really is - but the basic argument is that man-made climate change isn't happening and people are realising it.

Heathrow_airport_protestHowever, as I think I've shown above, the Cardiff study shows that the majority of the UK public did not agree with this analysis in 2003 and does not agree with it now.

The survey threw up a fascinating little social vignette by correlating people's attitudes on this issue with other facts about themselves.

So people who are older, more politically conservative or higher-earning are on average more "climate sceptical" than those who are younger, more left-wing or in greater penury.

On a recent thread, Jack_Hughes_NZ (nothing personal, Jack, you just keep saying interesting things) referred to this in a comment about how psychologists identify various personality types, including the "urban-eco" - the suggestion being that peoples' attitudes towards climate change stem from their core psychology.

(A couple of years ago, social anthropologist Benny Peiser and sociologist Kari Norgaard reflected on the psychology of catastrophism and what I'll call "climate ostrich-ism" for this website, which might be worth re-visiting in the current context.)

If this is right, you wouldn't logically expect climate attitudes to change much in a society where information about the issue is everywhere and has been everywhere for a long time, as in the UK - unless there are changes to the underlying facts and people take them on board, or unless somehow the social mix alters over time.

In general, the UK public is more "climate sceptical" than the rest of Europe. Several polls have shown still greater concern over climate change in the developing world, and - interestingly - a greater willingness to make lifestyle changes to deal with it.

A poll commissioned by BBC World Service two years ago showed 90% support globally for climate curbs.

The last few months have seen a number of reports hinting that the pace of global temperature rise may have abated, for now at least, meaning that the picture of inexorably rising temperatures depicted in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, would turn out to be incorrect in the short-term before the overall warming trend kicked back in in future decades.

I wondered if this was being reflected in the intensive negotiations leading up to Copenhagen's UN summit. After all, if governments were sensing a reason not to pledge difficult and potentially expensive transformations to their economies, you would expect them to take it.

Last week I had the chance to ask someone intimately involved in those negotiations. "No" was the answer - not reflected at all - in fact, what was being reflected were fears that the picture would be worse than the IPCC painted.

None of this categorically proves the case for man-made climate change. But it does show, I think, that the publics' and their leaders' perceptions of climate change, in the UK and elsewhere, are not significantly out of step.

Can climate spending save money?

Richard Black | 17:19 UK time, Thursday, 10 September 2009


How much are you prepared to pay to combat climate change?

It's a question that's being asked in government offices from Berlin to Brasilia - and nowhere more so, this week, than in Europe.

The European Commission reckons that the EU should contribute between $2bn and $15bn per year to poorer countries from 2020 onwards, to help them adapt to impacts of climate change.

Nicolas_SarkozyFrench President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, is preparing to spend some valuable political capital introducing a carbon tax for domestic consumers and some businesses.

But there's a surprise awaiting across the big Atlantic pond, where a rather different question is being asked: how much of a financial benefit will accrue from combating climate change?

Since the Waxman-Markey bill - capping emissions of industry, establishing a carbon trading scheme - came into existence, all sorts of institutions have sounded warnings about the economic calamities it might bring.

Now, though, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) calculates that Waxman-Markey could create more than half a million new jobs and save the average household nearly $300 per year - a boon to individuals, families and the nation itself.

You might contend, of course, that this is exactly the sort of conclusion you would expect from an organisation that supports energy-efficiency legislation.

You might also contend that warnings of economic doom are exactly what you'd expect from organisations such as the American Petroleum Institute that are none too keen on anything that might upset the current status quo of high fossil fuel use.

So who is right and who is wrong?

Often, these calculations depend on which factors you include and which you leave out, and what guesses you make about the numbers that you can't know.

The whole adaptation debate is a good example. In the immediate term, it'll cost, of course, for Europe and the US and Australia and Japan and so on to assist in the climate protection of poorer nations.

But the calculation is that in the end, it'll be money well spent if it results in fewer refugees, more cheap food to import, healthier markets overseas, and so on.

Sorry if that sounds cynical - but when you hear western politicians refer to climate change as a "security issue", you know whose security they're concerned about.

Putting exact financial costs on all that, though, is... well "difficult" would be an understatement.

Heat_image_of_Buckingham_PalaceThe argument that President Sarkozy's is making is that a carbon tax is a better option for curbing emissions than a national carbon trading scheme.

Opinions on that one are divided. Some economic experts (of whom I am emphatically not one) maintain the market is always a better mechanism because it's intrinsically more efficient than taxation.

But Norway and Sweden have made carbon taxes work for them, and both governments believe their emissions would be significantly higher now if they hadn't brought the taxes in during the last decade.

The current recession provides a nice example of the arguments.

It has brought the carbon price tumbling down, removing the financial incentive for businesses to invest in low-carbon technologies and practices.

A tax, meanwhile, would have chuntered along regardless, placing the same premium on every tonne of carbon emitted whatever the state of the economy - and so, presumably, constraining emissions.

Some would see that as a failing, others as a desirable outcome; you pay your money and make your choice. The UK has chosen domestic trading for small businesses; across the channel, Mr Sarkozy has chosen the other option.

Politically, Mr Sarkozy is betting that a reduction in income tax concomitant with the increased take from fuel, plus support for poorer families and rural communities, will eventually prove a more popular equation with voters than opinion polls on the issue would presently suggest.

If France's tax proves more effective than the UK's domestic trading scheme, and the ACEEE analysis of the US situation transfers to Europe, then French consumers stand to benefit by comparison with their British counterparts; the tax will eventually make them richer.

Stock_marketMeanwhile the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) has thrown another intriguing angle into the mix this week, issuing a report concluding that clean technology and carbon-penalising market mechanisms are both relatively inefficient.

Western governments could combat climate change five times more cost-effectively if they invested their money in programmes that lowered the birth rate in developing countries, the organisation concludes.

A controversial suggestion, for sure, and one that I am certain will find no place in the various financial mechanisms established by the new UN climate treaty, if and when such a beast emerges.

But being controversial doesn't necessarily mean the OPT is wrong. I'll turn once again to the words of long-time activist Jonathan Porritt in my recent radio documentary on the state of our shared environment.

He related the case made by a Chinese government official who recently visited his Forum for the Future offices.

Describing China's one child per family policy as having led to "400 million births averted", and calculating the volume of greenhouse gases those extra human inhabitants would have produced, she said that no other country had done as much to curb climate change.

The logic, said Mr Porritt, was inescapable, adding the rider: "You don't have to accept the China route to that logic.

"You can look to all kinds of alternative ways of reducing human numbers which aren't done as coercively as the one child per family policy was done in the past."

There are, of course, many factors whose monetary value we struggle to calculate, and others that are intractable to being turned into financial form.

Again, to some people's minds, that's a good thing - aspects of our lives and our world transcend mere money, they would say.

Nevertheless, economists are bound to try, whether they ply their trade in government, think-tank or campaigning organisation.

But which analysis you end up supporting is, perhaps, as informed by gut instinct and political persuasion as by the quality of the economic arguments.

How much are you prepared to pay? How much do you stand to benefit?

Yukio Hatoyama's golden carrot

Richard Black | 12:17 UK time, Monday, 7 September 2009


Well okay, it's happened a bit earlier than forecast in these quarters, but Japan's incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has announced what could prove a significant move in climate circles, pledging to cut his country's greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

Japan_and_US_flagsThis goes way beyond the 8% set by Taro Aso's outgoing Liberal Democratic Party government.

It's already being welcomed in campaigning circles. Greenpeace described it as "the first sign of climate leadership we have seen out of any developed country for quite some time," while WWF said it would "be a big force in moving one step forward the stalled talks between developed and developing countries".

One of the reasons why the talks leading up to December's Copenhagen summit are "stalled" is because in general, western nations are not promising emissions cuts by 2020 of anything like the 25-40% that developing countries are asking for.

There should be no doubt that Japan's new target is, in sporting terminology, a "big ask". Because Japan's emissions have risen since 1990, it amounts to a cut of about one-third from current levels.

There is, though, one big caveat: there has to be a global deal through the UN framework, with other developed countries making pledges of similar scale, and some kind of action also promised by at least some developing countries "in the process of achieving sustainable development and eliminating poverty under the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities'.''

So you could regard Mr Hatoyama's pledge as a "golden carrot" for UN negotiators. The incoming Democratic Party government hasn't said what will happen if there isn't a global deal, but you can be fairly sure Japan won't hold to the 25% figure as a unilateral pledge.

The carrot is similar to the one being dangled by the EU; a deal will bring a bigger cut (in the EU's case: 30% with a global deal; 20% without).

A slightly anoraky (but important) point is that Japan has also returned to the logic of measuring everything against a single baseline, 1990, rather than inventing new ones (as Australia has by choosing 2000, Mr Aso did by announcing his target relative to 2005, and US President Barack Obama did during his election campaign by continually referring to 2007).

Slightly more exciting than the concept of common baselines is the comparisons that are already being whispered with the US, which remains the single most important country in this whole process.

Barack Obama birthday rallyDeveloping countries view the current US carrot as anything but golden: too small, too poor in nutrients and stained through by the brown canker of "business as usual".

Like Japan, US emissions have risen since 1990. Until this Japanese election, leaders in Tokyo, like their counterparts in Washington, were insisting that this made a really steep cut in emissions by 2020 impossible.

Now Japan has broken that mould. Mr Hatoyama believes a major cut is feasible, and in a country that is already far more frugal with energy than the US.

Tokyo, therefore, has laid down a gauntlet to Washington. We shall see whether Washington responds.

Can Japan change the climate?

Richard Black | 12:26 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009


Word is creeping out along various streets that Japan's new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will announce a significant change of climate policy when he travels to New York later this month.

The just-out-of-office Taro Aso government pledged to cut the country's emissions by about 8% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The word now emerging says that Mr Hatoyama will increase that to 25%; and that he'll announce it on the grand stage of the UN General Assembly on 23 September, the day after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special event on climate change for heads of state and government.

Yukio_HatoyamaDoes it matter? You bet.

All kinds of words are being used to describe the current state of the UN negotiations set to conclude in Copenhagen this December. Some of the politer ones are "stuck", "logjam", "mired" - you'll have to use your imagination for those that cannot be inscribed on a family-friendly blog.

One of the main reasons why they're "stuck", as I've referred to before, is that most of the developed world has already said how far it's prepared to go in pledging to cut emissions by 2020 - and for developing countries, it just ain't far enough.

That's what has some climate activists excited about the new Japan; 25% takes it into the ballpark demanded by developing countries, which is currently occupied only by the EU.

There are all kinds of caveats, of course - how much of the 25% will come from cuts at home and how much through international trading, does the government actually have the policies to make this quite savage cut - but politically it will make a big stir, no doubt about it, if the new premier goes ahead.

But it does also point up a much wider issue with the whole UN climate process. It is supposed to deal with a truly global issue and one that in terms of time scale goes way beyond the lifetime of any government; yet can be significantly strengthened or weakened or even derailed completely by political changes in a single nation.

The example that springs to most peoples' minds would probably be the transition from Bill Clinton to George W Bush, followed by the latter's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol - although to my mind, it's not a completely accurate example because the US Senate was so clearly opposed to Kyoto all along, hence Mr Clinton's reluctance to seek ratification.

Presidents_Bush_ and_ClintonI'd pick another - the transition from the Bob Hawke to Paul Keating governments in Australia in the early 1990s.

Although from the same party, they sang from different hymn sheets when it came to the environment.

Under Mr Keating's leadership, in the crucial period between the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the Kyoto conference of 1997, Australia went from being a supporter of the Kyoto concept to a sceptic, eventually securing itself both a target that officially allowed its emissions to rise by 8% and, more significantly, a special clause under which land use change could be counted as emissions control - a measure that according to some estimates effectively made its Kyoto target more like +30%.

The word at that time was that if Australia hadn't got its concessions, it would have walked away from Kyoto without signing anything - the treaty would not exist.

Internationally significant? Oh yes: when one country, especially one of the world's highest per-capita emitters, secures special treatment, then everyone else looks for it too.

The subsequent wranglings and special pleadings delayed the protocol's entry into law by years and introduced some major weakenings.

Something significant was, of course, widely anticipated in climate circles from the transition from George W Bush to Barack Obama; so how are we doing there, three months before Copenhagen?

Well, the Waxman-Markey bill - setting carbon caps and introducing a carbon trading scheme - is alive but delayed - not now due to come into the Senate until late September at the earliest.

Some of the reasons for the delay are connected with the bill itself - discussions over the economic impact, the possible export of polluting industries, and so on - but one of the big ones has absolutely nothing to do with the climate issue, namely political horse-trading over President Obama's proposals for healthcare reform.

Given that the US position is absolutely critical in determining whether a Copenhagen deal materialises or not, this is also a truly spectacular example of domestic political considerations that are nothing to do with climate influencing the eventual shape of a global treaty.

It's possible - what a nice co-incidence of timing it would be - that the Waxman-Markey bill will enter the Senate just as Mr Hatoyama is entering the UN General Assembly building to make his pledge.

Whatever your views on climate change - and I'm very well aware from reading your comments every week that opinions are as polarised as they ever have been - don't you find it unsatisfactory and indeed bizarre that narrow national politics can play fast and loose with global environmental governance?

Shouldn't frameworks on issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, fisheries management and so on be decided in a way that transcends the view of any political party - especially when most enter or leave office on policy platforms where environmental issues feature only marginally?

So here's my challenge to you smart thinkers out there: is there a way of doing it better?

I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Plan B for Planet Earth

Richard Black | 17:05 UK time, Tuesday, 1 September 2009


"Geo-engineering is not an alternative to emissions reduction."

So not Plan A, then.

"Do we need it? Maybe."

So perhaps not Plan B either.

The words are John Shepherd's, spoken at the launch of the Royal Society's report into whether technical fixes such as painting roofs white, putting giant parasols in space or pumping iron filings into the ocean could curb climate change.

Professor Shepherd chaired the 10-month inquiry, and was keen to emphasise that although some of the technologies might have a role to play one day, today is not that day.

For some options, he said, "the technology is hardly formed". Many others "are still at the conceptual stage".

So further research - and pretty quickly - is the biggest single recommendation.

But the study does break new ground in attempting to rank the different contending technologies according to how effective they're likely to be, how much they're likely to cost, how safe they appear, and how quickly they could be deployed.

Royal Society report graphic of different technologiesSo the most cost-effective, overall, is probably pumping dust into the upper atmosphere, mimicking the impact of volcanic eruptions that are known to produce a net cooling by reflecting sunlight back into space.

Studies indicate [pdf link] that putting a few million tonnes of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere every year could counter the extra heating from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide; and the cost would be "just" a few tens of billions of dollars per year.

However, this would be nothing to combat ocean acidification - another impact of rising CO2 emissions. There are issues of who controls it and who funds it, and it has to be done for probably a century at least - stopping the programme while greenhouse gas concentrations remain high would result in abrupt warming.

So it's risky, in the report's judgement.

In fact, there is not a single technology that scores well on all the parameters.

Planting forests is judged to be safe and cheap but not particularly effective. Putting reflectors in space emerges as probably effective, but at high cost in terms of money and risk. Changing the reflectivity of the planet's surface, although safe, is unlikely to do much good and carries a high cost.

Cloud seedingAnd so on. Technology by technology, the potential silver bullets acquire a tarnish of one hue or another.

For technologies that work in the global commons - in the atmosphere or the oceans, or in space - the Royal Society emphasises there should be an internationally agreed set of rules for research, never mind deployment.

Perhaps the biggest paradox in the whole field is that the technology that has received the most research - iron fertilisation of the oceans - is now rated as quite expensive, of unproven worth, and one of the least safe in terms of its potential for upsetting the ocean ecosystem.

Yet it remains of commercial interest, with one company, Climos, seeking to prove its efficacy in order to generate income from a global carbon market.

To anyone who has followed the issue for some time, the Royal Society's conclusions can hardly come as a major surprise.

About 18 months ago, I chaired a panel debate on the issue at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) annual scientific meeting in Vienna.

It was one of those "debates" when actually there was very little disagreement between panellists over the substance.

Those speaking for the potential of geo-engineering emphasised the positives, and those speaking against emphasised the negatives; but really, putting a cigarette paper between them would have been a challenge.

At the end, we took a show of hands from the audience (almost all scientists, some active in the climate field and others not). They too were almost unanimous; geo-engineering could not replace carbon cuts and was not ready for "prime time" use, but research now, on a small scale, was a good idea.

Leaders effigies in CopenhagenMore recently, the American Meteorological Society reached a similar suite of conclusions.

The approach had potential merits, it said, but:

"Research to date has not determined whether there are large-scale geo-engineering approaches that would produce significant benefits, or whether those benefits would substantially outweigh the detriments."

And just last week the UK's Institute of Mechanical Engineering released a report, which although phrased a tad more bullishly than the Royal Society's, reached the same broad conclusions:

"Geo-engineering is not an encompassing solution to global warming.
"It is however, another potential component in our approach to climate change that could provide the world with extra time to decarbonise the global economy, a task which has yet to begin in earnest."

There, I think, is the rub. In John Shepherd's words:

"We believe it is still possible to combat climate change through emissions controls - if the international community is more successful than it has been."

And if the international community isn't more successful than it has been - notably at the UN summit in Copenhagen in December - then, perhaps, calls to invest in Plan B will receive a more sympathetic hearing.

The Royal Society's case for getting research underway is simply that society should understand the impacts and costs of the various options in good time. Then, if a key tipping point does appear on the horizon, society could make a rational decision whether to deploy.

Some environmental groups counter that even talking about the possibility of technical fixes may reduce the urgency of attempts to curb emissions - although it's going to be pretty hard to stop scientists and science academies talking about them as summit after summit passes and emissions continue to rise.

The Royal Society's is, I think, a rational case. But it has been for some time.

Questions such as so who's going to get on and do it, who's going to fund it, and when will an international framework be ready to regulate research (never mind implementation) are, presently, quite a lot less tractable.

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