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Will nations build on climate-change momentum of 2007?

By Peter N. Spotts / January 9, 2008

A fjord near Ilulissat, Greenland, pictured in August 2007. The nearby Sermeq Kajalleq glacier has thinned in what scientists say is a major sign of global warming.

Michael Kappeler/AP

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If 2007 was the year when an international scientific – and popular – momentum built around tackling global warming, this year is likely to be one of boosting that commitment. Last year, three major reports from the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change covered the science of global warming, its potential effects, and ways for addressing the challenge. A special UN meeting in September ahead of climate-change talks in Bali last month was matched by a Washington-led initiative for major carbon-emitting nations. In 2008, expect developing nations to play a more active role in negotiations for the post-Kyoto Protocol period, (as they did in Bali). Will the Bush administration steal a march this year on the UN climate talks? The US will be pumping more research money into carbon sequestration – ways to capture CO2 – and solar energy, and several climate bills are pending before Congress, reports Peter N. Spotts.

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With the Kyoto Protocol kicking in this year, what will happen to greenhouse-gas emissions?

Jan. 1 marked the start of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period, which runs until 2012. Current projections suggest the countries taking part will collectively achieve the protocol's goal of reducing emissions to levels more than 5 percent below 1990 levels.

But Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), notes that since 1990, global emissions have grown 20 percent. By 2030, the agency expects energy-related carbon emissions to climb to 56 percent above 1990 levels.

Developing countries would account for 74 percent of that increase, with China and India accounting for nearly half of the total. Fossil fuels – oil, gas, and most of all, coal – are expected to fuel some 84 percent of the greater demand between 2005 and 2030. This business-as-usual scenario leads to carbon-dioxide emissions that would raise global average temperatures by nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

Mr. Tanaka says that to cap warming at about 3.6 degrees, countries would have to begin – today – aggressively using existing or nearly-ready technologies – the equivalent of bringing online each year some 30 nuclear reactors, at least two Three Gorges dams, 17,000 wind turbines, and 22 coal plants using carbon capture and storage (CCS). After 2013, every coal new plant would need to use CCS technology. A significant boost in energy efficiency is also needed. Rising demand for energy through 2030 will call for a $22 trillion investment, he says.

What's likely to happen on the international scene?

Two tracks bear watching.

Track 1: UN talks that received a green light and a negotiating framework at December's global climate talks in Indonesia. The aim is to have a new greenhouse-gas reduction agreement ready to take over after 2012. "It's not impossible, but it's very ambitious," says Manik Roy of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.