Will nations build on climate-change momentum of 2007?

Michael Kappeler/AP
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.

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.

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.

Newly influential developing countries must be part of any new agreement if it's to gain political traction and have a meaningful long-term effect. In a first, those countries, along with the European Union, stared down the US over final wording in the road map at the Bali talks, and the US blinked.

To move forward this year, negotiators may try to set an agenda that starts with issues the White House is most comfortable with, such as technological approaches to reducing CO2 emissions. Tougher issues – binding emissions targets for industrial countries and more-flexible goals that appeal to developing countries – may wait for a new US administration. At the least, analysts say, they will be watching to see if the White House tries to block elements it doesn't like.

Track 2: The Bush administration's Major Economies Meetings (MEM) on Energy Security and Climate Change. The idea is to gather the major emitters – responsible for some 80 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions – to explore paths to reducing emissions significantly under a new agreement. Representatives from 17 countries, the European Union, and the UN took part in the first meeting in Washington last September. Now, the process is set to go into high gear, beginning with a meeting at the end of January in Hawaii. According to James Connaughton, who heads the president's Council on Environmental Quality, the meetings will look for ways to help support the new Bali road map.

But many environmentalists worry that the White House is trying to replace the UN Bali process with the MEM one. A key indicator of how much stock participants place in the Bush meetings will be the clout of the teams they send. By some accounts, the White House plans five or six MEM meetings even as participants face an ambitious UN negotiating schedule. Analysts will be watching where the "A" teams go for a hint about the relative priority the Bush process receives. And they will be watching to see how smoothly any final results, which may come as early as July, feed into the UN process.

Will climate-change bills in Congress move forward?

Last month, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. According to its sponsors, the bill covers greenhouse-gas sources that account for 80 percent of US emissions; they would have to cut those emissions by 70 percent by 2050, leading to an overall cut in US emissions of 63 percent below 1990 levels. Those levels are comparable to the cuts most scientists say are needed from developed countries to hold global warming to around 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Passage is not certain, but the bill's prospects appear to be improving. For one thing, the president is trying to burnish his legacy and avoid dropping a high-profile environmental issue into Democratic laps in an election year.

In the Senate, 48 lawmakers have backed some form of cap-and-trade bill. And in the House, two influential moderates have indicated they would like to harness the cap-and-trade approach: John Dingell (D) of Michigan and Rick Boucher (D) of Virginia. Among the forces at work there: Industry. It's getting more difficult to site a coal-fired power plant. State programs are springing up like dandelions, raising the prospect of adhering to a regulatory patchwork. And after the US Supreme Court affirmed that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, industry is loath to see the EPA craft emission regulations.

What technology is being eyed to tackle CO2 emissions?

Look for significant increases in R&D for greener energy sources, at least in the US. The omnibus spending bill President Bush signed in December contains a 23 percent increase in the Department of Energy's energy R&D budget over the amount the White House requested. The administration's original request represented a 10 percent cut from the previous year, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Congress gave the department authority to spend nearly $1.9 billion on energy research.

The goal is to advance technologies such as carbon sequestration, energy from biomass, and solar energy. Carbon sequestration is particularly important, because for developing countries like China and India, coal remains the cheapest, most abundant fuel. The countries with the largest lead are likely to reap the greatest economic benefits as international agreements include or enlarge incentives to grow in a greener way.

What about energy efficiency?

This plays a prominent role in both IEA projections and in the Lieberman-Warner bill. The IEA estimates that improved efficiency in buildings, vehicles, appliances, lighting, and other power-hungry technologies could contribute nearly 25 percent of the CO2 cuts needed by 2030 to reach the 3.6 degree-warmer climate mark by century's end. The Lieberman-Warner bill calls for new codes that by 2010 would lead to new or renovated residential and commercial buildings that are 30 percent more energy efficient. The bill calls for a 50 percent increase in efficiency by 2020.

What projects are scientists planning?

In February, federally-funded scientists head to the Southern Ocean to measure the rate at which carbon dioxide moves from the atmosphere to the ocean and back. It's one of the latest efforts to get a better handle on the processes Earth uses to store carbon dioxide. The rate at which the oceans and biomass on land can store CO2 is critical for estimating how quickly the heat-trapping gas will build up in the atmosphere.

Scientists estimate that oceans soak up about 25 percent of the CO2 produced by industrial activity. Rates of CO2 exchange between sea and air have been measured for the North Atlantic and the equatorial Pacific, but not the Southern Ocean. Yet the amount of surface area in the Southern Ocean available for CO2 absorption is huge. Wind is thought to be the key factor driving the exchange. But wave height also may play a role: high waves may block wind, calming the seas between crests. Calmer water takes up less CO2. Pinning down these processes also can help scientists project the region's future CO2 uptake as global warming alters weather patterns.

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