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In Bali, new urgency for a climate change accord

As negotiators prepare to discuss a new emissions framework in Bali, environmental damage continues to exceed expectations.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / December 3, 2007

NUSA Dua, Indonesia

Talks to frame global efforts to fight climate change begin here Monday, as delegates from more than 180 countries try to design an agreement that picks up where the 1997 Kyoto Protocol leaves off.

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The meeting represents the most rigorous test yet of whether the UN process is nimble enough to yield the deep cuts in emissions that most scientists say could forestall the more serious economic, social, and ecological effects of global warming.

Evidence continues to mount that environmental changes are occurring faster than even the best climate models have projected.

A new survey of recent tropical-climate studies released Sunday showed bands of semitropical arid regions that lie north and south of the equator are expanding into higher latitudes, bringing drier conditions to already water-strapped areas in the Mediterranean, the southwestern US, northern Mexico, and Australia.

In the report, scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and two universities explain that the tropical-climate belt has widened by between 2 and 4.8 degrees of latitude between 1979 and 2005 – an expansion rate expected only later this century.

"By any measure, 2007 stands out as a critical year, maybe even a turning point" in efforts to deal with climate change, says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center for Global Climate Change.

Compared with ten years ago, she says, the science of climate change is on far firmer ground. People around the world are beginning to feel the effects of climate change locally, contributing to a gathering political will to move beyond the Kyoto agreement and adopt tougher controls on emissions.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries that signed on to the pact must trim their greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of at least 5 percent below 1990 levels. They have from 2008 to 2012 to accomplish this feat. But the latest set of reports from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that global greenhouse-gas emissions must peak around 2015, then fall 50 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by midcentury, if governments hope to keep global warming's impact to a minimum.

With such a narrow window, rising emissions trends, and different approaches to ratifying agreements among countries, "it's hard to see where you're going to get the cuts that will be needed," says Harlan Watson, the Bush administration's senior climate negotiator.

CO2 emissions exceeding expectations

Meanwhile, scientists have noted that since 2000, global carbon-dioxide emissions have grown at a pace higher than all but the highest projections that the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses for its global warming projections. While industrial nations historically have driven greenhouse-gas levels close to their current high concentrations, currently the highest growth rates are occurring in developing countries, with China and India leading the pack.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the body overseeing the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, cites International Energy Agency figures that indicate soaring demand for electricity – driven in large part by new electricity demands in the developing world – will require a $20 trillion investment in new power plants over the next 25 years. Each new plant would run for decades. Absent an international policy to reduce emissions outright or reduce their growth rate, "we will see global emissions go up by 50 percent, not down by 50 percent" by midcentury, he says.

For now, however, UN climate officials say it's important to kick-start the process.