Copenhagen climate change talks stall as CO2 emissions rise

The Copenhagen summit on climate change is looking less likely to produce a binding CO2 emissions reduction agreement as a new study finds that global carbon dioxide emissions increased 29 percent in the past nine years.

Jens Panduro/Polfoto/AP
As environment ministers filed into their afternoon press conference, climate activists held banners and demanded the rich countries to pay their climate debt outside the Tycho Brahe Planetarium, in Copenhagen, Tuesday.

Even as the Copenhagen climate change negotiations have moved into the slow lane, greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating, according to new evidence released today.

Negotiators at a preparatory meeting for the December climate summit said on Tuesday that firm commitments from the US and other industrial heavyweights to curb greenhouse gas emissions at the meeting are now looking unlikely. A binding global treaty on emissions was the initial aim of the conference.

Meanwhile, The Global Carbon Project, an international group of climate scientists, released research on Tuesday that found carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants, factories, tree-felling and other human activities grew by 29 percent between 2000 and 2008 –a period in which leaders of major industrialized nations took the first fledgling steps to reduce their own emissions and make an international climate treaty work.

The Kyoto Protocol on combating climate change was passed in 1997 by over 180 nations with the intent of reducing global carbon emissions to a 1990 baseline. But in the intervening 12 years emissions have continued to rise, as country's have been unwilling to take the economic hits that reduced emissions are likely to require.

Political leaders are now looking to the US and President Barack Obama to take the lead on climate change, since the US is the second-largest carbon emitter after China. But legislation to curb US emissions is currently stalled in Congress, a factor that also makes broad success in Copenhagen less likely. Also uncertain is aid from the developed world to help poorer countries offset the economic hardships of converting to cleaner power sources.

"We still need more movement," said UN Climate Change head Yvo de Boer in Denmark on Tuesday. "Industrialized countries must raise their targets and financial commitments further... I look to the United States for a numerical mid-term target."

In recent weeks leaders in key countries have signalled that no one should look for a treaty to be approved in Copenhagen next month – a clear hope coming out of global climate talks in Bali in December 2007.

On Sunday Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen suggested that countries aim for a more limited political agreement on reducing emissions and building a financial-aid regime for developing countries, with a legally-binding treaty put off until high-level talks in December 2010 in Mexico City. The UN's Mr. de Boer has said he prefers to see a legal document ready for approval in Bonn sometime in mid-2010.

Emissions up in recession

Despite the global economic slowdown last year, emissions rose 2 percent in 2008. The Global Carbon Project estimates that 2009's deep economic contraction trimmed global emissions by nearly 3 percent, but that short term dip is expected to reverse once recovery takes hold.

Noting that population growth and efforts to improve the standard of living in developing countries are among the underlying forces driving rising emissions, the need to cut CO2 emissions "is a very urgent task," says Taro Takahashi, a researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and one of the study's authors.

The question mark looming over the Copenhagen meeting has been the willingness of industrial nations to cap the increase in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

To stand an even chance of achieving that, countries should aim to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at between 350 and 400 parts per million, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Global Carbon Project's latest figures show that CO2 concentration levels have risen to 385 parts per million.

Moreover, the team estimates that where changes in land use, largely deforestation, accounted for 20 percent of human emissions between 1990 and 2000, that figure has fallen to about 12 percent for the 2000 to 2008 period. The emissions update appears in this week's issue of the journal Nature Geophysics.

Remaining uncertainty

No single study represents the final word on what's happening with carbon emissions. And the team acknowledges that more work needs to be done to cope with uncertainties. One key issue involves divvying up the uptake and release of CO2 among the various natural sources and "sinks." The study indicates that forests and oceans took up less CO2 during the 2000-2008 period than they did during the previous decade. They attribute the change to global warming and natural climate swings. Other researchers, however, point out that their work shows no change in the ability of these sinks to soak up CO2.

Still, because the Global Carbon Project was established to help inform political decisions on climate policies, its conclusions are likely to carry weight as negotiators grope their way toward a new climate treaty.

The list of outstanding issues is long, according to Jennifer Morgan, who heads the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute in Washington. Convincing developed countries to make substantial emissions reduction is just one challenge. Convincing major developing countries to slow and eventually reverse their emissions trends is another, as is the need to provide financial aid to poorer countries to buy the technology needed to achieve goals they agree to. Finally, finding a monitoring regime and legal status for enforcement that all countries will accept won't be easy,

"All the major economies coming to Copenhagen are coming ready to fill in those blanks," says Ms. Morgan. These countries are looking for "what the [Obama] administration is able to bring to the table consistent with what Congress is debating" in energy and climate bills it's currently considering.

Yet President Obama, during a summit with Chinese leaders this week, noted that "our aim ... is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations and one that has immediate operational effect."

Some analysts who have been watching this process since the Kyoto Protocol was hammered out still say much can be accomplished at Copenhagen, even if the result falls short of a legally binding agreement for now.

"A few months before Kyoto, people were throwing up their hands saying nothing could happen. A month before Rio, in the final negotiating session, it was unclear there would be the political will to move an agreement forward for the heads of state," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. "Some of us have seen this movie before. Expectations are high and they should be kept high."

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