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Kyoto to Copenhagen: a dangerous gulf between policy and action


The climate change conference in Copenhagen during March 2009 highlighted a growing gulf between science, policy and action - a fatal flaw that increases the risk of an abrupt and irreversible climatic shift. A backgrounder by STWR.

The informal consensus among those present at the climate change meetings held in Copenhagen during March 2009 was that we simply will not be able to avoid the 2 degree centigrade increase that recent targets have been pinned on.  Global temperatures had already risen by 0.75C above pre-industrial levels by 2005, and some scientists believe that emissions over the past 4 years may have caused a further warming of up to 0.6C. In this scenario, even if all carbon emissions were immediately stopped, the world is likely to have already warmed by at least 1.3C - which pushes the planet to the verge of widespread climate disruption.

The political process for mitigating climate change is already more than 15 years old, and has been so slow that the risk of reaching climate ‘tipping points' has steadily increased over this period. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) came into force in 1994, with universal support and a commitment to monitor emissions and consider reduction and adaption measures. Out of this framework grew the notorious Kyoto Protocol, which finally entered into force in 2005 despite its initial adoption in 1997.

Kyoto's binding agreements on greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction cover a 5 year period and commit countries to reduce emissions by 5 percent on average by 2012, from the base year in 1990.  Whilst few countries are on track to achieve these cuts, veteran analysts such as George Monbiot have long considered the targets to be extremely out of date, and have proposed cuts closer to 90% in rich countries by 2030.

 In the meanwhile, parties to the UN Convention have agreed to shape an ‘ambitious and effective international response to climate change' through a series of high level meetings which culminate in a conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. The measures agreed on during the current round of conferences are critical and will contribute to establishing a more stringent successor to Kyoto

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of leading scientists and government officials who built a consensus on the facts of global warming, continue to play a crucial role in facilitating international conventions. Copenhagen was an opportunity for parties to synthesise the latest IPCC and other scientific findings, in order to inform decision makers on possible adaption and mitigation strategies in advance of the fateful December 2009 conference.

Gulf Between Science and Action

A growing gulf between the scientific data and the policy response to it was the most urgent message to come out of Copenhagen. Scientists again outlined the risk of inaction by providing more compelling evidence that the effects of climate change are likely to be far worse than previously reported. They revealed that globally we are already progressing along the scientific community's ‘worst case scenario' in terms of increases in average surface temperatures, rising sea levels, melting ice sheets, ocean acidification, and other extreme climatic events.

This acceleration has significantly increased the risk of an abrupt and irreversible climatic shift from unpredictable positive feedback mechanisms, whereby rising temperatures and CO2 concentrations feedback amplifying effects on the planet's dynamic ecosystem.  These can catalyse a self-perpetuating cycle that can quickly propel climate change beyond expectations. 

Forest dieback, meaning the destruction of trees by environmental conditions, is one of a number of the feedback mechanisms which obfuscate predictions. According to Dr Chris Jones of the UK's Met Office, even if countries are successful in their attempts to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees centigrade, we will still lose between 20-40% of the Amazon rainforest.

This significant deforestation is a direct result of rising temperatures and will further reduce the forest's ability to act as a climate sink, which it does by currently absorbing 25% of all emissions. The ocean captures another 25% of all emissions, but increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 is acidifying the surface water and destroying plankton faster than recently predicted - which also significantly reduces the ocean's sink value.

Additional complications stem from shrinking ice sheets that reduce the amount of heat reflected away from the Earth. Retreating ice and snow areas also release GHGs that have been trapped for millennia, further accelerating global warming.  Increased levels of water vapour - the consequence of higher land and sea temperatures, also amplify the effect of GHG on climate change, and there are numerous other examples of feedback mechanisms which quicken the rate of climate change.

Early signs of how this acceleration will affect human life are both stark and disturbing. Whereas the IPCC forecast a rise in sea levels of between 18cm to 59cm by 2100 in their 2007 report , findings presented at Copenhagen suggest that ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking much more rapidly, and sea levels have been rising by more than 3 millimetres a year. At current rates, researchers predict that sea levels are likely to rise by more than 1 meter by 2100, enough to displace600 million people who live in low-lying river deltas in countries like Bangladesh and the Netherlands, densely populated cities like Shanghai and New York, and numerous Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

A major barrier to achieving more coherence between science and action is the lapse in time between data collation and presentation. The UNFCC rely upon the seminal reports by the IPCC, the most recent of which was published in 2007, but based on figures collected in 2005. The figures, now 4 years old, are in serious need of updating, and grave concerns remain about the involvement of multinational corporations in the negotiation and drafting process. Regular interim reports to update policy makers and NGOs on the latest scientific findings and estimates must play a key role, but even more important is a more immediate and coordinated policy response mechanism.

Further Resources

Key Messages from the Conference

Watch Closing Session

Six Ways to Save the World: Scientists Compile list of Climate Change Clinchers

STWR Climate Change Key Facts  

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference December 2009

United Framework Convention on Climate Change

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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