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A quiet bombshell on Copenhagen climate treaty?

Susan Watts | 10:05 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009

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All eyes are on New York today, for the latest political moves ahead of the make-or-break conference in Copenhagen in December seeking a global climate deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

And last night it looked as if Danish prime minister and host of the talks, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was about to drop a quiet bombshell.

He was expected to make clear that he is no longer looking to Copenhagen to deliver a "treaty", that is a document with legally enforceable emissions cuts, but only "a political declaration" - an altogether different outcome.

But overnight reaction from European countries has now put a question mark over that, suggesting that he may now defer his announcement.

Downgrading from a treaty to a political declaration would be a bitterly disappointing result for those pinning their hopes on Copenhagen, despite all the warning signs that a meaningful deal looks perilously close to impossible.

Yet, a political declaration may still be worth having, if the detail is right.

If it includes a line committing countries to agreeing emissions cuts say by the middle of next year, then it may still be effective.

If not, then the politicians risk going home thinking they have achieved a deal, but one that proves empty and undermines the carbon price.

Granted, everything is still "in the balance" as the Miliband brothers put it two weeks ago.

And there are positive signs. Later on Tuesday, Chinese president Hu Jintao is expected to say enough on China's emissions plans that it can stake a claim to be leading the world.

At least that is the way his speech was trailed last night by the UN's senior climate negotiator, Yvo de Boer.

After all, someone has to fill the leadership vacuum.

President Barack Obama is struggling with his climate bill at home. This is in second place to getting healthcare reforms passed. And even if health goes well, and earns Obama political capital from unexpected success, hopes of formulating a meaningful US offer in time for Copenhagen - with real figures on emissions cuts - will remain on a knife-edge.

The problem is that all this "high-level" political activity has a downside as well as an upside.

If prime ministers and presidents get involved, then they can at least negotiate with real authority - without having to constantly "phone home". But they also bring their own staff, with the risk that they edge to one side the climate negotiators with knowledge of the detail that is needed for a deal to have an impact in the real world.

Because it is the real world that sets a time limit on these talks - and marks them out from other global discussions.

Leaders of the world's largest economies have accepted scientific advice that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought to stay below 2C - defining this as the threshold into dangerous climate change.

So success or failure at Copenhagen has one simple test - is the deal enough to secure that 2C limit?

If the talks fail, it gets tougher to fix the problem later, because climate scientists are now confident that for a reasonable chance of keeping temperature rise below 2C, the concentration of greenhouse gases should not go beyond 450ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent.

And to do this, they say, global carbon emissions must peak within the period 2015-2020 and decline rapidly after that.

Hence the race against time, and the need for the detail to be right.


  • Comment number 1.

    so the future is being determined by a gaggle of European politicians?....OMG we really are in the crap...

  • Comment number 2.


    Aaaaarrrrgggggghhhh! Sooooooooooosaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

    Polar warming (of Earth) is reported as twice average. Does that not gain your attention a little? Is it not a puzzling datum?

    There is 50 years of EXQUISITE scholarship pointing to electrical flows in space; and OTHER PLANETS (in our system) are showing POLAR HEATING.

    Are you really INTERESTED in science? Or just 'doing it for Newsnight'?

    I would go and lie down, but something dramatic seems to be brewing and I don't want to miss it. (And I DON'T mean a bunch of poor minds having a jolly to talk bad science.)

  • Comment number 3.

    #2. barriesingleton wrote:

    "Are you really INTERESTED in science?"

    1. Being interested in something is not the same as caring about the planet.

    2. The science behind the cause of the warming of our planet is not completely understood, however observations indicate that the planet is warming and that there will be consequences that we can have an approximate stab at.

    3. The causal link between CO2 emission and global warming is not well scientifically founded. However the climate is warming and lowering CO2 emissions may help moderate the rise, but as we are not yet sure of the cause of the worming there may be better ways.

    4. The best form of action is not to try to achieve the impossible, that may not work (lowering CO2 emissions) but to plan to deal with the consequence of climate change in a flexible manner, such that we do not wait until a million or more people die before we try to help ameliorate the consequences - prepare for large scale climate related migration, before people are drowned or starve through crop failure. (Perhaps we should build more floating cities for the fishermen of Bangladesh etc.?) Although, given the global increase in xenophobia this may be just as difficult as agreeing to do anything about CO2 (to say nothing about methane etc etc etc etc.)

  • Comment number 4.

    Last week we heard that the sun is about to enter a 10 year cooling period whilst the long-term up trend remains in place. It was a lead item from John Huphreys on Radio 4. Mr. Humphreys failed to point out that this new prediction makes the Hadley centre prediction that the planet will warm 2 centigrade by 2050 almost certaintly inaccurate. For both predictions to be true, the planet would have to warm more than 2 centigrade in the period 2019-2050.
    Within months a government prediction has now been effectively contradicted. The Hadley prediction was launched and publicised to coincide with millions of pounds of government expense on local authority weather and insurance advice. A national climate change weather service was launched 10 years too early. Local authorities are employing their climate change advisers and staff 10 years too early. The new prediction about short-term cooling also means that Edward Miliband was pre-mature in talking about the devestating effects of climate climate change on the UK. And the bills for local authority combined heat and power projects are now starting too arrive on door mats across the country. Is anyone at the BBC willing to look at the true political facts and details?
    At the outset of any discussion, it is important to stress that Edward Miliband knew very little about climate change befor taking on the job of Climate Change secretary. His main interest has been in social inequality. He will not be in his present job more than a year or two. In effect, it is a “Yes Minister” situation, where he is fed his lines by the bureaucrats. Kyoto was signed in 1997 by Prescott acting on civil servants’ advice. In 1997 the Miliband boys were young lads and the politicians of the day, such as Robin Cook, had not the slightest interest in climate change. Blair never mentioned it. The crucial historical period in understanding the formation of this bureaucratic policy is 1985 to 1997 from the discovery of the Vostock ice records to Kyoto.
    The BBC needs to start criticising a state bureaucracy for being pre-mature and alarmist. Bureaucrats has a professional interest in exaggerating the extent of the climate change threat. No bureaucrat would want to take the blame for failing to avert a major disaster. They have a natural incentive to err on the side of excessive caution. Everyone remembers Michael Fish, the weather forcaster who failed to give adequate warning of the October 1987 storm. By exaggerating risk, bureaucrats create work for themselves and protect their reputations. Such bureaucrats do not pay in person for the costs of such policies and it is in their professional interest to whip up public support in order to obtain funding for preventative measures. In recent years there has been a long list of disasters that never happened, where bureacrats have protected the public against threats that never materialised. The Iraq War was planned on the supposition that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons progrmmes would be found in Iraq. Protective muasures to deal with the Milleneum computer Bug were undertaken. The government has planned extensively for an Asian bird Flu pandemic, only to find that a relatively mild pandemic of Mexican swine flu arrived first. There has been a BSE scare and a foot and mouth crisis. In both cases it is arguable that government responses were disproportionate. The obligation to take excessive administrative measures is frequently written into the statutory framework under health and safety law or EU regulations or treaties such as the Kyoto accord.
    "Use-it-or-lose-it" now affects decision-making about environmental expenditure; and there are turf wars between government departments that have to protect budgets. Please would the BBC consider applying the normal standards of political analysis to the politics of climate change.

  • Comment number 5.

    “…the concentration of greenhouse gases should not go beyond 450ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent…” ???
    What is a CO2 equivalent?
    CO2 ppm is currently 390/400 ppm. So 450 ppm is an increase of 50 ppm. A 12% increase in CO2 is a global temparature increase of less than 0.5 c. over today’s levels. Which scientists say that is dangerous?

  • Comment number 6.


    One contender for CO2 equivalence is, of course, water, in its gaseous state. As a purely 'agricultural' observation, English clouds seem to be able to deliver a lot more water than was the norm. If this relates to higher average water content in the atmosphere, generally, this would boost global warming. As the water-saturation level is higher in warm air, there is positive feedback - a further factor.

    While speculating: the electrical state of the solar system is changing, and earth's atmosphere is plugged in to that state. This may also have an effect on atmospheric heating. I have already posted to Susan Watts regarding polar heating of planets (PLURAL).

  • Comment number 7.

    It is interesting to see that Mr. Rippon and Ms. Watts chose not to do an analytical scientific programme on the recent government ban on traditional light bulbs. Enough coverage of the global problem. Let’s look at the LOCAL problem concerning the politics of climate change.
    1. The so-called wastage from these bulbs is the heat they produce instead of light. In England most people have their central heating on from mid-September to mid-May. During this period heat from light bulbs is not being wasted. It is useful background heat.
    2. Many traditional light fittings (e.g. chandeliers) are not designed to use neon lights. It will not be long before the government has to introduce all kinds of exceptions to this regulation at museums, national trust properties, state banquets etc. etc. The Department of the Environment can expect a call from the Ministry of Art shortly.
    3. The solution to the problem of climate change, if it exists, will be found in developing new forms of energy production, such as renewables. It makes little sense to constrain consumer choice of light bulbs.
    4. An army of trading standards officers and environmental advisers is now enforcing the new regulation at local authority level. The administrative cost of enforcing the policy is very high. This kind of regulation is a “bean-feast” for red-tape merchants and bureaucrats.
    5. The policy was invented in Brussels and imposed on the British people.
    6. By contrast, the government has been incapable of taking strategic decisions about nuclear energy so far. What does it tell us that our government can come up with a petty and inane policy on light bulbs but cannot ensure enough energy to keep them on 10 years down the road?
    7. Other areas were there are wasteful and bureaucratic “climate” policies include bicycle lanes, car-hire businesses set up by Local Authorities, tree planting schemes, loft-lagging schemes etc etc.
    8. Is it not time for the BBC to start calculating the real cost of climate change policies and to start focusing on the bureaucrats who make a living from administering all this nonsense.
    9 Ed Miliband said that climate change in the UK will be devastating; he was referring to extreme weather events, droughts and flooding. Everyone agrees that the UK is, in fact, a part of the world were climatic change is relatively benign at all temperature levels under consideration. In other words, Mr. Miliband is dishonest
    10. Why would anyone trust the British Government when it is capable of policy like banning light bulbs?

  • Comment number 8.

    Climate Change and Public Information.
    Government public information should be limited to what is proportionate, cost-effective and necessary. We can expect a lot of bureaucratic wastage and scare-mongering in connection with climate change budgets. I have seen a government poster telling employees not to overfill the kettle at work when they want to make a single cup of coffee. This came out of a climate change budget. Then there is the poster telling everyone how to sneeze properly and what to do with a paper tissue. This is a government response to swine flu at a time when, perhaps, only 20 have died. At a local bus stop there is a poster of an attractive 16 year old black girl, which exhorts the general public and young people in particular to carry a condom with them on Friday and Saturday nights. It has not had any effect on me and I doubt that anyone in the world pays attention to it. Expect lots of the same kind of nonsense in connection with climate change as the years go by.

  • Comment number 9.

    Pre-Copenhagen Propaganda and Contradictions.
    Just last week Susan Watts said “…Leaders of the world's largest economies have accepted scientific advice that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought to stay below 2C - defining this as the threshold into dangerous climate change. This claim has now been contradicted by a government funded study looking at the non-fossil fuel effects of climate change.
    The study, a met office report which has been sent to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, included new figures on increased emissions from fossil fuels and also considered the effect global warming will have on the ability of the oceans and rainforests to absorb carbon dioxide. There is now more information on the affect global warming will have on certain "carbon cycles"… It is thought more carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere by organic materials in the soil decomposing at a faster rate, while warmer oceans are less able to absorb the greenhouse gas. An average global temperature rise of 7.2F (4C), considered a dangerous tipping point, could happen by 2060, causing droughts around the world, sea level rises and the collapse of important ecosystems, it warns...” So, is the “tipping point” 2 centigrade or 4 centigrade? Scientists don’t know and can’t make up their minds.
    If the world is lucky the “tipping point” is 4centigrade and non-fossil fuel effects won’t be as strong as envisaged in this report. No one knows for sure. In fact, there may not be a tipping point. It is also important to note that the report stresses that it is not burning fossil fuel that causes climate change directly but secondary effects.
    So following from earlier posts, there are two errors or uncertainties in Susan Watts' article.
    1. 450 atmospheric CO2 ppm is a tipping point.
    2. A 2 centigrade increase is a tipping point

  • Comment number 10.

    Carbon Cycles and Copenhagen.
    This is what the Met. Office had to say about carbon cycles on 30 June 2009:
    “….There is still substantial uncertainty in the strength of feedbacks between climate
    and the carbon cycle that determine CO2 uptake, so the UKCP09 projections sample a
    range of land carbon cycles consistent with current understanding. For the SRES A1B
    scenario the projected median value for mean atmospheric CO2 concentration for the
    period 2050-2070 is 600 ppmV. The projected 10-90% range for this period is 520-650
    ppmV with A1B forcing. More detailed analysis will be presented in future
    publications from the Met Office Hadley Centre...”

    In other words, they didn’t know. But just 3 months later Dr. Betts and Dr. New have a clear idea about the strength of carbon cycles.
    However, they have already made an earlier set of predictions that this incompatible with their new assertions. During the summer the Hadley centre claimed that there will be a 2c increase and 600 ppm by 2050-2060. These numbers imply strong non-CO2 effects such as such as northern hemisphere effects (local), improved air quality, water vapour effects, less SO2 etc. because a 50% ppm increase from 400 ppm to 600 ppm cannot alone account for a 2c. temp. increase.
    Taking all factors together, the new claim amounts to an admission that the earlier Hadley centre prediction that UK temperature increases in 2050 would be 2 centigrade was, in fact, an under-estimate. Or, alternatively, for those who are more cynical about government information, the government scare-mongering machine is contradicting itself within the space of 3 months.

  • Comment number 11.

    Let's not have unbiased postings by BBC correspondents we pay for. Many of us think Danish or other greenery is based on crumbling science but do we get a look in? No.

  • Comment number 12.

    It may interest some of you south of the border to hear a story about the UK Government and the Copenhagen Conference which was widely reported in Scotland recently, but I don't think was much outside.
    The SNP Scottish Government brought in groundbreaking climate change legislation earlier this year which set the ambitious target of an 80% reduction in Scotland's greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 with an interim target of 42% by 2020.Local authorities will be encouraged to give Council Tax discounts to help pay the costs of home energy efficiency.The bill includes other measures and has generated a good deal of interest worldwide.
    The Scottish Government wished to have a Minister included in the UK delegation to Copenhagen to explain the measures to the delegates and a good deal of interest has been shown.
    The Labour Government has refused point blank to allow a Scottish Govt. member on the UK delegation.Ed Milliband and Jim Murphy both saying there was no precedent for this.This has been shown to be completely untrue as the Scottish media produced the pictures of the then Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell attending the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg as part of the UK delegation.
    Therefore Scotland,with the most ambitious statutory emissions target in the world, will be stopped from telling it's story in Denmark because the Labour Government is so insecure and partisan it couldn't bear to see an SNP Minister take centre stage for an hour or so at an international conference.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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