Climate scientists have pretty much stopped arguing about whether humans are warming the planet. A United Nations panel confirmed in September that rapid industrialization has put the globe on a path to exceed the goal of limiting the temperature gain to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet the only international treaty to control greenhouse gases has been rendered nearly useless by a lack of targets for the biggest emitters. The latest findings add urgency to UN talks for a new global agreement. Poor countries argue that they need cheap fuel to power development and small island nations clamor that their existence is threatened by melting glaciers and rising seas.
In theory, everybody wants a new agreement with teeth. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, governs just 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions because the U.S. never ratified the deal and it didn’t include China and India, now the biggest and third-biggest polluters. The UN aims to pound out a broader, legally binding pact to be signed at a summit in Paris in 2015 and implemented starting in 2020. Meanwhile, individual countries are setting their own targets and companies and homeowners are installing solar panels, using more energy-efficient lighting and measuring and reducing their emissions. These proactive investments — plus rising consumer awareness and political pressure around the world — provide momentum for a global deal. Key decisions may provide signals of intent, including U.S. efforts to regulate power stations and decide on the Keystone XL pipeline to transport fuel from Canadian oil sands to U.S. refineries. China’s build-out of its planned coal-fired power stations and progress toward ambitious renewable energy goals will show how it aims to balance economic growth and the environment.
The UN talks have been fractious over the years, with walkouts, behind-closed-doors meetings of a favored few and all-night sessions culminating in bad-tempered plenary meetings. The last such push for a global deal in Copenhagen in 2009 ended without any new legally binding targets. Even without these goals, many governments have started to impose costs on polluters that reflect the broader harm to society, either by levying taxes on carbon emissions or by adopting cap-and-trade systems for carbon permits like the ones now used in various forms in Europe, California and China. Those efforts were set back by the global recession that crimped industrial output and the boom in shale gas that drove energy prices lower. Research from the UN and private business groups indicates that global warming is likely to take a growing toll on the economy, food production, fresh water supplies and human health.
The arguments that crippled the Kyoto Protocol have hardly changed. There’s a vociferous army of global-warming skeptics who lobby politicians and blog on the topic. The UN scientists weren’t helped by errors in their last big assessment of the science in 2007. They’re now publishing an updated three-part report on the latest on climate change, with a final summary due in October. Developing countries insist that their priority is to take people out of poverty as quickly as possible, and tapping cheap fossil energy is often the quickest way to do so. They say it’s up to the developed world to act first and help fund efforts in poorer nations. Industrialized countries are wary of losing jobs to lower-cost markets. Policy makers must decide how quickly to scale back fossil fuels and push into intermittent renewable technologies such as wind and solar. Those are often more expensive, though prices are falling. There’s also plenty of ambiguity over the form and enforceability of any new global pact, setting the stage for more disagreements as the deadline approaches.
The Reference Shelf
- Website of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN body facilitating the treaty talks.
- United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
- Bloomberg Markets article on the efforts of Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, to make an economic case to address the risks of climate change.
- Text of the Kyoto Protocol.
- Website of the Extreme Ice Survey, which documents melting glaciers with time-lapse photography.