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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

New Evidence for Warming of the Globe While Policymakers Contend with Each Other in Durban

Labels: Durban conference, Kyoto Protocol, UNFCCC, IPCC, CO2, greenhouse gases, global warming, climate change, emissions, climate models, climate projections

Summary:  The UNFCCC negotiations in Durban are now halfway through the two week schedule for the meeting.  China has proposed terms for agreement, to take effect after 2020, that the developed nations, including the U. S. and the European Union, find unacceptable.

In the face of this contentious situation, there is new evidence for a worsening of the world’s climate.  More CO2 was emitted during 2010 than ever, since start of the Industrial Revolution.  Based on climate models, a new scientific paper projects that large areas of the Northern Hemisphere will warm by 2ºC (3.6ºF) by 2040, within the lifetimes of many living today.  To the extent this occurs, the consequences would be severe.

Introduction.  This year’s international meeting for negotiating a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol is convened in Durban, South Africa from Nov. 28 to Dec. 9, 2011.  The Kyoto Protocol and all follow-up meetings are under the auspices of the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) .  The Kyoto Protocol (see this post) was finalized in 1997, and is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012.  It covers only “developed” countries, including the U. S., but the U. S. Senate rejected the treaty so that the U. S. in fact is not bound by its terms.  Upon ratification by a sufficient number of subscribers, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005.  Under its terms, most participating states undertook to reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions below their emission levels of 1990 by 8%, during the commitment period, 2008-2012.

The Kyoto Protocol excluded developing countries of the world from its terms. At that time developing countries had very low levels of economic activity, and emitted very small amounts of greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide).  Since then, however, the principal developing countries, such as China and India, have expanded dramatically, and have become major contributors to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  China overtook the U. S. in total amount of emissions around 2009, and now emits the most of any country on earth.

The Durban Conference.  Over the years that annual meetings have been held under the UNFCCC, the objective had been to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, to take effect as soon as Kyoto itself terminated.  It is now clear that this will not be accomplished (see this recent post).  Reuters reports on 5 December 2011 (accessed December 5, 2011) that, after the first week of negotiations at the Durban conference, the highest emitters of greenhouse gases, China, India and the U. S., cannot agree on the critical features of a new arrangement. 

In the past, China’s position was that the terms of any new accord be based on carbon intensity, i.e., the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of economic activity (e.g., gross domestic product), rather than the absolute amount of emissions.  As measured in this way, China’s greenhouse gas intensity was trending lower year-by-year, while still pouring more and more absolute amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  The Chinese, and other developing countries, feel they should not be bound by limits to be placed on absolute amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, as this would restrict them from achieving a higher standard of living.  Furthermore, developing countries object to being placed under future restrictions because of the past history of greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialized countries of the West.

Reuters reports that in recent days at Durban, China has expressed willingness to engage in a legally-binding arrangement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to take effect in 2020.  But, the agency reports, the Chinese failed to confirm this in a subsequent news conference, and has imposed other conditions.  First, it would require that other major emitters of greenhouse gases likewise be bound by any accord.  Second, it insists that funding for a Green Climate Fund, agreed to at last year’s meeting in Cancun, Mexico, be in place, at the agreed level of $100 billion per year by 2020, to help impoverished and other developing countries adapt to the changes being wrought by warming of the planet. 

According to Reuters, the U. S. special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, characterized China’s conditions as not acceptable.  He said “all the major players are going to have to be in with obligations and commitments that have the same legal force.  That means no conditionality, no condition of receiving the financing….”  The Climate Commissioner of the European Union (EU), Connie Hedegaard, likewise was skeptical, saying “The question is if China will be legally-bound. That would be interesting…."  The EU is already embarked on an emissions reduction roadmap, with the goal of reducing man-made greenhouse gas emission by at least 80% by 2050 (see this earlier post).

At this time, funding of the Green Climate Fund could also be problematic in view of the poor state of the global economy.  In setting this funding as a condition for going forward, it is felt that China may be setting up a situation that may make ultimately reaching an agreement more difficult.

India is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases among developing countries, as it, too, proceeds rapidly on a path of economic growth.  Its Environment Minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, insisted on December 5, 2011 on “equity” among nations in order to reach a climate agreement, according to IBNLive (accessed December 5, 2011).  This consideration mirrors that of China.  Sunita Narain, India's leading environmentalist, stressed that the developed countries of the world should bear the burden of reducing, rather than continuing to increase, their carbon emissions.

Worsening State of the Warming of the Planet

In the face of the contentious atmosphere facing negotiators at Durban, recent findings show that the climate continues to develop worsening patterns of greenhouse gas effects.  The New York Times reports on December 4, 2011 (accessed December 5, 2011) that the rate of accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose 5.9% during 2010, citing the Global Carbon Project, an international group of climate scientists.  According to them, the incremental burden of greenhouse gases added in 2010 was the largest since the start of the industrial revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Burning of fossil fuels for energy and for manufacture of cement are the principal man-made sources of greenhouse gases, and a majority now is emitted by developing countries such as China and India.  The growing rate of greenhouses gas emissions is worrisome to scientists, since these trends suggest it will be ever harder to limit the warming of the planet to levels that do not cause severe harm to the earth’s environment.

Manoj Joshi and coworkers carried out regional projections on the surface of the earth of when the regional temperature might be expected to reach 2ºC (3.6ºF) higher than the level that prevailed before the start of the industrial revolution (Nature Climate Change 1, 407–412 (2011); published online October 23, 2011).  Although many climate projections predict that the world-wide average temperature could increase by 2ºC by about 2060, this work finds that many regions across the Northern Hemisphere could reach that threshold by as early as 2040, well within the lifetimes of many living right now (see the graphic below).

As colors change from bright red to blue, the year predicted for the regional temperature to increase by 2ºC grows further distant from the present, from 2010 to 2100.
Source:  © 2011 Nature Publishing Group

It is seen above that many regions of the Northern Hemisphere are foreseen to warm by 2ºC by 2030 (Siberia, Saharan Africa), and others by 2040 (Europe, southern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Canada and Alaska).


Scientific evidence is growing that human actions lead to abnormally high accumulations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.  The consequences of the resulting warming of the earth’s temperature are likely to be severe and dire.  Greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere pervade the entire planet; although emitted locally, they persist in the atmosphere and affect the globe worldwide.  In the face of this growing danger, the policy makers of the world’s nations have to overcome national interests and coalesce about a solution that embraces all nations and benefits us all.

© 2011 Henry Auer

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