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.
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.
"It's my personal hope that we can focus on the questions we need to answer today," says the UN's Mr. de Boer. He says he would count the coming two weeks a success if government ministers flew home with an agreement to begin talks on a new pact, a common list of issues to include, and a firm commitment to sign off on a pact in or for 2009.
Indeed, several factors would appear to weigh in on the side of relatively quick action, Ms. Claussen notes – especially compared with 1995, when countries agreed to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol after the voluntary provisions of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change proved ineffective in slowing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Throughout 2007, leaders, including President Bush have called for concerted international action, although differences remain on the best approach to deal with global warming. Indeed, last week Australians elected a new prime minister who has pledged to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the US as the only industrial country in the world to take a pass on the treaty.
A growing political will
Still, within the United States, efforts in Congress and among states to curb emissions have gathered significant momentum. And support for action has grown among leaders of major companies around the world. Last week, leaders of some 150 companies with a combined value of up to $4 trillion signed a petition asking governments to act quickly at Bali to curb greenhouse gases.
In the US, a compromise between leading Democrats last week paved the way for a bill that would require a 35-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency standard by 2020. Meanwhile, state efforts to set up regional carbon-trading systems has expanded to the Midwest.
And if the timetable for a new global agreement gets stretched, "that wouldn't prevent countries from continuing to move at the national level," notes Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center.
The Pew Center's Claussen notes that virtually everyone agrees that the key to success lies in getting the US to agree to binding commitments to reduce emissions, as well as getting key developing countries, such as China and India, to curb emissions growth. China is trying to cut its economy's greenhouse-gas intensity by 20 percent between 2005 and 2010, and next year will set its average fuel-economy standard to 37 miles per gallon. Brazil has pledged to cut its rate of deforestation by 50 percent.
This year "has been a very productive year; there's a strong sense of momentum," Claussen says. "Expectations are high." But as talks begin here, she cautions, expectations may be too high.
With respect to the US, she notes, a new administration will take over in 2009. It could take six months or more to assemble a negotiating team that would be jumping into the process midstream. This suggests that it's unlikely that countries will be able to seal a deal that includes the US until 2010 at the earliest. And if the ratification process for the Kyoto Protocol is any guide, the international ratification process may take longer than anticipated. Some key players may jockey for last-minute concessions in exchange for ratifying.
"We need to keep the pressure up" on governments to negotiate, Claussen continues, "but we need to be realistic."
For now, this is putting increased onus for moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol on emission-control efforts in individual countries – regardless of their participation in 1997 pact, notes Jake Schmidt, director of international programs for the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington.
Indeed, as some US states move toward the kind of emissions cuts many would like to see globally, their efforts may provide a reality check, adds the State Department's Dr. Watson. "They could provide a real-world test on what is feasible."