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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.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Thursday, October 2, 2014

U.N. Climate Summit Underscores Perennial Differences on Climate Change

The United Nations convened a Climate Summit on September 23, 2014 as a springboard for action on addressing global warming.  About 120 national leaders attended, as well as leaders in business, government and action groups.  Notable by their absence were the leaders from China and India, two of the nations among developing countries with the highest annual rates of emission of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide (CO2)) and/or the highest rates of growth in those emissions from year to year.

Negotiations toward a new international climate treaty to stabilize the world’s average temperature are about to begin under the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Convention).  Work on the treaty will proceed for next 14 months, with the goal of reaching agreement by December 2015.  The new treaty is considered a follow-on compact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto), negotiated in 1997. 

Kyoto adopted the same wording as appears in the Convention, namely that nations of the world address climate change “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.   This phrasing reflects the concerns that “the developed countr[ies] should take the lead in combating climate change” and that the “specific needs and special circumstances of developing countr[ies]…should be given full consideration”.  

As a result, the final Kyoto treaty applied only to developed (i.e., already industrialized) countries such as the U. S., those of Western Europe, Japan and Australia.  Under Kyoto, each of these countries was to reduce its emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) by specified amounts (typically a few percent) by 2012 from the levels of 1990. It attracted enough signatories to become enforceable by 2005, and it expired in 2012.

Although President Clinton supported Kyoto, the U. S. rejected it so that it was not bound by its terms.  Arguments against approval included the distinction in the treaty between developed and developing countries mentioned above, which, it was argued, would put the U. S. at a disadvantage in international commerce.

Economic Growth, Energy and GHG Emissions

Economic growth depends critically on use of energy.  In 1997, the year that Kyoto was signed, energy use in China and India, while growing, were still very low, much lower than that of the U. S., as seen in the graphic below.
Annual rates of energy usage for China, the U. S. and India.  Actual use from 1990 to 2010; projected usage thereafter.  1 quadrillion = 1 million billion; Btu, British thermal units.
But use of energy by both these countries expanded rapidly, and China’s became higher than that of the U. S. by about 2009. 

As China has drastically expanded its energy consumption, its annual rate of CO2 emissions has similarly grown dramatically, as seen in the graphic below.

Annual rates of CO2 emission attributed to the burning of fossil fuels from 1980-2011, for China, India and the U. S.  The numbers on the left of each panel show the lowest and highest values on the vertical axis, enlarged for legibility.  Note that the vertical axes are not comparable across the panels.
Numerical data for these countries’ growth in energy use and CO2 emissions are given in the Details section at the end of this post.  As the graphics above show, China and India, which are good examples of many developing countries, have expanded economic activity and CO2 emissions many-fold over these decades, while the U. S., typical of most industrialized countries, has remained essentially constant, due at least in part to actions taken under Kyoto or aligned with it.  This shows how “differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” stated in the Convention have developed over this time: developing countries have been at liberty to undergo unbridled expansion, while developed countries have emphasized measures to limit emissions.

The speeches at the U. N. Climate Summit reflect the ambiguity of the Convention statement discussed above.  Examples drawn from the U.
(a developed country), China (a developing country), Mali and the Maldive Islands (impoverished or less developed countries) are summarized here and expanded in the Details section.  They show the differing circumstances and needs among the groups.

The U.S. President urged all nations to work toward a meaningful climate treaty to preserve present conditions for our children and future generations.  He pointed to the major policies the U. S. is undertaking to achieve significant reductions in GHG emissions and promote adaptation.   China, on the other hand, emphasized its efforts to increase efficiency of energy production and use (while omitting mention of actual emission amounts), increasing renewable energy sources and setting a goal of capping emissions. 

Mali (speaking partly for others in Africa as well) and the Maldives identified themselves as suffering the consequences of global warming due to actions of others whom they cannot control.  They demanded early, meaningful measures for assistance in adaptation to the effects of global warming, and emphasized the importance of policies promoting mitigation of further warming.


Equity, and Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Capabilities
This post has emphasized the differences separating developing and developed countries concerning global warming.  Developing countries tend to stress equity in insisting that they be given the same opportunity to develop, using fossil fuels for energy, that industrialized countries have benefited from for more than a century.  At the same time they point to the responsibility of those developed countries now to limit their emissions because of their advanced economic status.  These attitudes stress hindsight or past history.

Developed countries, on the other hand, presumably consider equity as supporting a policy that, since developing countries are now the ones expanding the world’s burden of atmospheric GHGs, they should bear the “differentiated responsibility” of constraining their emissions.  This means not only slowing the growth in annual emission rates, but actually reducing annual emission amounts.  Developed countries are already doing this, as seen in the European Union and the U. S.  These policies reflect foresight with a vital concern for the future environment of our planet.  They accept the present status of emissions among the world’s nations, and strive to reduce them regardless of past history. 

Equity should also entail taking into consideration the plight of the world’s most disadvantaged countries by supporting their mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Glen Peters, one of the authors of this year’s Global Carbon Budget report, has stated  “Since China is responsible for almost 30 percent of current global emissions and emissions continue robust growth, to have any realistic chance of keeping below [a limit of] two degrees [C increase over pre-industrial levels] requires strong action by China.”

India rejects the notion of constraining its growth and reducing its emission rate, according to Prakash Javadekar, its environment minister.  India’s first responsibility, he stated, is to reduce poverty and expand the country’s economy, rather than reduce GHG emissions.  In his view, a principal culprit of emissions is the U. S.

In the opinion of many climate scientists, little time remains to embark on meaningful mitigation of GHG emissions.  Stocker has characterized the tradeoff of delaying mitigation vs. the intensity of mitigation policies required.  The FifthAssessment Report
of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forcefully favors substantive mitigation efforts.  Developing countries are projected to continue emitting GHGs at ever-increasing annual rates, as shown in the first graphic above.

Friedlingstein and coworkers (Nature Geoscience, vol. 7, October 2014, pp. 709-715; published online: 21 September 2014; DOI:10.1038/NGEO2248) find that the world has already exhausted 2/3 of its “carbon budget” that would keep it below the warming threshold of 2ºC (3.6ºF).  Given that the world’s annual emission rate is increasing year by year, they believe not more than 30 years remain before the full budget will be exhausted.  They conclude that “Breaking current emission trends in the short term is key to retaining credible climate targets within a rapidly diminishing emission quota.”

The world has no alternative but to negotiate a significant and effective new climate treaty.  Nations must bring themselves to abandon the hindsight view of the Convention’s principles.  They have to accept the present status and the dire projections of future environmental damage.  They must adopt the prospective view.  For example, investments in the energy economy should be directed toward renewable energy and energy efficiency, not toward new fossil fuel infrastructure.  Our future, and that of our children and further progeny, requires no less. 


Economic Growth, Energy and GHG Emissions

China’s energy use from 1997 (i.e., more than half way across the horizontal axis in the first graphic above) to 2011 had an average growth rate of 8.2%/yr,  and its CO2 emissions  for the same period grew by an averaged rate of 7.6%/yr (but note the sharp change in rates starting about 2001; second graphic).  India’s energy use increased by about 4.9%/yr and its CO2 emissions grew by an averaged rate of 5.1%/yr.  In the same period the use of energy in the U. S. remained essentially unchanged, and its CO2 emission rate fell by an average 0.1%/yr.  The behavior of other industrialized countries is similar.

These data illustrate how the original ambiguity of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” stated in the Convention has played out in the intervening years.  Most developed countries have taken concrete steps to lower the actual rate of emission of GHGs after Kyoto.  On the other hand, a country such as China has increased efficiency of use of energy by a few percent per year.  Even so, China’s overall demand for energy has grown at much faster rates.  As a result its net emissions balance still leaves the country with increased rates of GHG emissions in absolute terms, i.e., in terms of actual amount of GHG released into the atmosphere.  The energy usage projected by EIA to 2040 (first graphic) reflects this, both for China and for India.

The speeches at the U. N. Climate Summit

U. S. President Barack Obama addressed the Summit , observing “no nation is immune” from impacts of climate change and citing America’s recent hot temperatures, ocean flooding, high incidence of forest wildfires, droughts and heavy rainfall.  He continued “the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it….Our citizens keep marching….We have to work together as a global community to tackle this global threat before it is too late….We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair.”  The President referenced his Climate Action Plan that includes many initiatives to address global warming in the U. S. He also stated he met with the Chinese envoy to the Summit (see the following paragraph) restating his belief “that as the two largest economies and emitters in the world, we have a special responsibility to lead.  That’s what big nations have to do.”  Recognizing that the world’s nations approach climate negotiations from vastly differing vantage points, the President stated an agreement “must be ambitious –- because that’s what…this challenge demands.  It must be inclusive –- because every country must play its part.  And, yes, it must be flexible –- because different nations have different circumstances.”

The Special Envoy of China’s President Xi Jinping, Zhang Gaoli, summarized (in English translation) China’s efforts in improving its energy efficiency, including removing older, more inefficient facilities from use and expanding production of renewable energy.  China projects even greater improvements in efficiency and intends to cap total energy consumption and “vigorously develop non-fossil fuels”.  Tellingly, he referred to the importance of the principle in the Convention, “common but differentiated responsibilities, equity and respective capabilities”, in the proceedings leading to the 2015 climate treaty.  He emphasized the role of trust in going forward, saying “in particular, developed countries need to intensify emission reduction and fulfill commitment …of 100 billion US dollars and technology transfer to developing countries by 2020.”

Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga of Mali (in remarks translated from French) called attention to the drought that affects sub-Saharan Africa.  He cited this region as “the most vulnerable in the world” to  the effects of climate change, since by the end of this century Africa “could lose between 25 and 40% of its natural habitat and sea level rise could destroy close to 30% of its coastal infrastructure.”   Yet Africa, he noted, emits the least amount of GHGs.  Accordingly, Mali supports the Convention’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the framework of a new climate agreement.  Mali needs to deploy more than US$1 billion between 2015 and 2019, in five initiatives: reforestation, climate-resilient agriculture, a national agricultural management effort, preservation of water resources, and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Dunya Maumoon, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives (a low-lying island nation south of India), made an impassioned plea for the upcoming climate treaty negotiations: “The effects of climate change have no boundaries.  It does not differentiate [among countries].  The assumption that some countries are safe from climate change…is a dangerous myth.”  The Maldives, she stated, has already undertaken measures to reduce its emissions and adapt to climate change.  But it emits “just 0.00003 percent” of global GHGs while facing an existential threat [from inundation] because of worsening global emissions.  She asks “Is it not ironic that…the Maldives…are made helpless bystanders, while others who ignore the threat…decide our fate?”  In response to the climate marchers in New York on September 21, 2014, asking for action on the climate, Ms. Maumoon stated “It is clearly time for action”.

© 2014 Henry Auer

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