Monday, December 17, 2007

Bali's crying shame

The drama of the UN climate change talks caught the world’s attention, but critics wonder whether they will secure its future.

The baby turtles were cute, but they were also clearly suffering. The tropical sun was beating down on the beach in Bali as they swam round and round in their big plastic bowls full of slowly warming water. They were waiting to be liberated into the ocean – but first came the talking.

The turtle release was a side event to the United Nations climate change conference taking place a few hundred yards away in the Bali international convention centre, and that meant a host of dignitaries first had to make themselves heard.

As they droned on, with each speaker placing their own particular emphasis on the threats presented by global warming – not least to endangered species such as turtles – the energy of the captives began ebbing away. They stopped swimming and sat still in the water.

By the time those gathered on the beach were allowed to scoop up the turtles and carry them down to the water’s edge, some had almost lost the will to live and, when released, lay motionless on the sand.

Pushed into the cool of the water they did gradually revive and paddled slowly away, but to many observers it seemed the perfect metaphor for the events of the past fortnight in Bali: a lot of humans talking endlessly while nature suffers.

Last Thursday the World Meteorological Organisation revealed that 2007 had been one of the 10 hottest years on record, as were eight other years in the past decade.

In Bali, the best response that the politicians could manage yesterday was to agree a “road map” for more talks without any specific targets for cutting emissions of greenhouse gases.

Getting that agreement was certainly dramatic. Yesterday saw Yvo de Boer, the UN’s main climate change official, burst into tears while addressing the conference. The strain of multiple sleepless nights and tortured negotiations had become too much.

America even appeared to have been forced into concessions after its representative, Paula Dobriansky, was booed by delegates from other countries.

Optimists, including Hilary Benn, Britain’s environment secretary, hailed the agreement as “historic” yesterday, mainly because America had signed up to it.

Others, however, fear that it will prove too weak to achieve anything. As the exhausted delegates and politicians board their planes to travel home today, are the real prospects of controlling global warming any better than before the Bali talks began?

THE precedents are not good. It is 10 years since the world’s politicians held a similar gathering in Japan where they signed the Kyoto treaty. At the heart of Kyoto was a commitment from industrialised countries such as Britain, America, Australia and Russia to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. John Prescott, then environment secretary, helped to broker the agreement and proclaimed it as the deal that would save the world.

In reality Kyoto was a disappointment. The draft treaty had promised that the industrialised nations would reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases – there are six in total – by 6% from 1990 levels by 2008. The final version referred to only three gases, the date had slipped to 2012 and the level of cuts had fallen to 5.2%.

Australia ratified the treaty only after the election of a new prime minister last month and America, the world’s biggest emitter, has still not done so.

In 1997 mankind was already generating the equivalent of 40 billion tons of CO2 a year. Kyoto was meant to herald a new era in which such emissions would stabilise and then reverse. Instead they have risen faster than ever – up to 50 billion tons last year.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), an energy policy adviser to 27 industrialised countries, believes that trend is unlikely to change. In its recent World Energy Outlook report, it said emissions would be pushed well above 65 billion tons by 2030.

The IEA concluded that we still had a faint chance of keeping global temperature rises below 2.4C by 2020, but only if energy-related CO2 emissions were cut by 25% to 40%. Such a cut would be, said the IEA, “unprecedented”.


The question now is whether the process that has begun in Bali has the potential to achieve the dramatic cuts in carbon emissions that the scientists say are needed.

It seems unlikely. Even if the political will is there, the science mitigates against it.

Vicky Pope, of the Met Office’s respected Hadley Centre for climate prediction, was just one of many scientists presenting new research in Bali. Sitting under the palm trees fringing the idyllic Nusa Dua beach, she pointed to the “small but scary” graph showing the latest predictions on the global temperature rises that we might expect as greenhouse gas levels rise.

The natural background level of CO2 is 273 parts per million (ppm) but human activities have pushed this up to 379ppm. At some time before 2030, greenhouse gas levels are predicted to reach the equivalent of 450ppm.

At this level, said Pope’s graph, global temperature rises of 2C are 80% certain. If CO2 levels reach 550ppm, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of respected scientists has said they will, probably before 2030, then there is a 70% chance of the global rise exceeding 3C.

Here is the full article.