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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 8, 2015

A World-wide Climate Agreement by the End of 2015

Nations around the world are filing notice of their proposed contributions for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the next 10-15 years, or more.  This is being done ahead of the next (21st) United Nations “Conference of the Parties” (COP) that convenes starting the end of November 2015.  Since the 2009 COP in Copenhagen nations have struggled unsuccessfully to agree to a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) of 1997, which expired in 2012.  Recently the negotiators have moved toward a proposed agreement based on voluntary, but verifiable, contributions toward emissions abatement, instead of the top-down imposition of limits as was done in the KP.  In addition, the agreement, which should be finalized in the 21st COP, will apply to all nations, without excluding the developing nations as the KP did. This affords the best chance for agreeing to worldwide reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The consequences of man-made global warming are widespread , affecting our social and economic wellbeing at a personal level of experience, as well as regionally and nationally.  Various regions have been struck by high tide flooding, drought leading to sociopolitical instability or to reduced agricultural yields, loss of agricultural lands and extreme forest wildfires , by way of example.  President Obama has identified global warming as a serious threat to U.S. national security .

Global warming arises largely from burning fossil fuels for energy, producing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as a waste product.  The fraction remaining in the atmosphere, about two-thirds, retains excess heat from sunlight (the greenhouse effect), leading to the examples of harms cited above.

The current outlook for CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels has been analyzed up to 2035 and beyond by the International Energy Agency (IEA).  It finds that in the absence of worldwide action to abate emissions the world will not succeed in restricting the increase in global average temperature to 2ºC (3.6ºF) or less above the levels from before the industrial revolution (see Details at the end of this post).  This result, and others like it, is an urgent call to action.

The 21st COP, meeting in Paris starting late November 2015, is considering a draft agreement which calls on all United Nations (U. N.) members voluntarily to commit to emission reductions of their own formulation, subject to reporting and verification.  The commitment of the U. S., for example, calls for quantitative reductions in emissions from the American energy economy (see Details).  Examples of commitments from two developing countries, China and India, however, are only to lower the rate of increase of their emissions over the next decade or more, rather than to reduce numerically their GHG emissions (see Details). 

Analysis.  The IEA has shown that without embarking on a rigorous plan to reduce GHG emissions the world will not succeed in keeping the overall long-term global average temperature increase to 2ºC (3.6ºF) or less from the start of the industrial revolution.  Many other analyses by independent research organizations reach a similar conclusion.  These findings represent a critical call to action by the nations of the world to undertake meaningful emission reductions.

The 21st COP will consider a draft agreement when it meets at the end of 2015 to achieve such reductions (see Details).  In distinction to the terms of the KP and later proposals to extend its terms, the current draft treaty does not distinguish between developed and developing countries, nor does it assign defined reductions in emissions to every nation.  Rather, each nation is to submit voluntary commitments generated internally for the furtherance of the overall objective, in a verifiable fashion.

Commitments by all nations that have submitted them are available here.  This post considers commitments by the U. S., China and India (see Details).  The U. S. provided sound numerical objectives for actual reductions in emissions.  In contrast, China and India have long been fundamentally committed to expanding their economies, using primarily fossil fuel-derived energy, without serious regard for the environmental consequences of their actions (see Details).  China began initiatives in recent years to lower its energy intensity (i.e., increase the efficiency of energy use by using less energy per unit of gross domestic product).  India has subscribed to similar objectives only within the past year or so (see Details). 

China and India pledge only to reduce the rate of increase of their emissions, seeking to reach a maximum annual rate by 2030 or sooner.  These commitments may be disappointing for policymakers seeking more aggressive reductions in emissions, but in each case they represent a significant change from the earlier policies of these nations of unrestrained growth based on fossil fuels.  These commitments by two major developing countries constitute a significant departure from the structure of the KP, and may lead to more aggressive commitments for reduction of emissions in later years.

It is the intention at the 21st COP to finalize the draft agreement and issue it for ratification by each member nation of the U. N.  In the U. S. this will likely trigger a major political struggle involving the current and next Presidents, and Congress.  The U. S. rejected ratifying the KP at least partly because opponents felt that exclusion of developing countries from its terms while the U. S. would have been subjected to emission limits would have put the U. S. at a competitive disadvantage in world trade.  If the final agreement produced by the 21st COP incorporates the universal voluntary commitment framework of the draft agreement, the argument that the U. S. would be at a disadvantage would no longer be valid.  It is hoped that the U. S. will preserve its leadership role in the world’s global warming policymaking and ratify the final agreement as specified here.


 The IEA’s World Energy Outlook (WEO) for 2013 analyzed the contributions to CO2 emissions from the mature industrialized countries of North America, Europe and Asia (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; OECD) and the developing countries (non-OECD), historically since 1900, and projecting by models from 2013 to 2035.  The results are shown in the graphic below, in the left panel.
Historical and future projected total accumulated CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere.  LEFT: Breakdown of contributions to the total emitted CO2 from industrialized (OECD) countries (blue) and developing (non-OECD) countries (orange) for four historical time periods up to 2012, and projected emissions, assuming no actions are taken to limit them, for 2013-2035.  Gt, gigatonnes (billion tonnes).  RIGHT: A circle representing the maximum permissible worldwide emissions of CO2 that keeps the global average temperature increase from the industrial revolution below 2ºC (3.6ºF).  Historical accumulation 1750-2011 (orange), amount projected for 2012-2035 (gold), and projected emission portion remaining (gray) in the limited CO2 budget permitted.
Source: Adapted from International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2013  

In the graphic, left panel, the first three bars are for 30 years, the fourth bar is for 23 years and the fifth bar, for projected emissions, is for 22 years.  Historical and projected emissions, assuming no actions are taken to limit them, increase dramatically as time passes.  Emissions from the industrialized world (OECD) level off after 1959, however, whereas those from developing countries (non-OECD), including major contributions from China and India, have surged and are projected to continue rising dramatically to 2035.

Climate scientists have calculated the maximum total accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere that would limit the increase in the global average temperature to 2ºC (3.6ºF) or less since the industrial revolution began.  This amount is represented as the circle in the right panel of the graphic above.  The sectors show that if no constraints are put on the world’s emissions most of the emissions budgeted to preserve the temperature limit will have been committed by 2035 (combining the orange and gold sectors).  That leaves a presumably unattainably narrow sector (gray) of emissions in the years after 2035 to stay below the established temperature limit.  The graphic concludes “emissions [are] off track [i.e., historical and projected emissions are too high] in the run-up to the 2015 climate summit in [Paris,] France”, taking place at the end of the year, to limit the temperature rise.

It is critical that the nations of the world reach agreement on limiting emissions at the Paris conference.  The annual COP conferences, involving all member states of the United Nations (U. N.), have so far failed to reach agreement on limiting emissions (and other related issues).  This is at least partly because the Convention governing the U. N. meetings enshrines the opposing points of view 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”.  

The Kyoto Protocol incorporated this distinction: it applied only to industrialized countries, while excusing developing countries from being held to any emissions limits.  Developing countries point to the large historical contributions to emissions from industrialized countries (see the graphic, left panel), and feel they should be allowed to industrialize in the same way.  In contrast, industrialized countries recognize that industrialization in the developing countries will add significant new CO2 contributions to the atmosphere (see the graphic, left panel, projection to 2035), to the world’s detriment. 

COP21 will consider finalizing a new draft treaty for approval.  The most important new departure is that, in contrast to KP, which imposed numerical emissions limits for each covered nation in the treaty, the new agreement invites voluntary yet verifiable commitments from every nation for its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  

Three Examples of Voluntary Commitments.  The U.S. is a major contributor to the emissions from industrialized countries.  China, a developing country, is currently the nation with the highest GHG emissions in the world; it is responsible for a major portion of the historical 1990-2012 and projected 2013-2035 emissions shown in the graphic.  India, also a developing country, is increasing its fossil fuel-driven energy production at similar (high) annual rates as China, although its absolute numerical production is much lower.  The voluntary commitments of these three nations are summarized here.

U. S.  The U. S. is committing to reduce its emissions from the level of 2005 by 26-28% by 2025, with best efforts made to achieve 28% reduction .  President Obama has already put in place several policies that will contribute to meeting this goal.  This program places the U. S. on a longer-term path to achieve an economy-wide reduction in GHG emissions of 80% by 2050.

China had been a strong proponent of the arguments presented by developing countries summarized above.  Its reconsidered goals were outlined in the summit meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Obama in 2014.  China’s emission rates continue growing because it is adding new fossil fuel-driven electric generating plants to power its expanding economy.  Its goal, confirmed for the U. N.’s 21st COP, is that the annual rate of GHG emissions will reach a maximum by 2030 and possibly sooner, and then decline.  China’s commitment to slow the growth of its emissions was not specified in numerical terms.  As part of this initiative China expects to use fossil fuel-derived energy more efficiently, including increasing the share of energy derived from renewable sources to 20% by 2030, and to expand its forested lands.  It is to be emphasized that China’s numerical rate of emissions will not begin declining until about 2030.

India has been rapidly expanding its energy production from fossil fuels, especially coal.  As recently as 2014, Prakash Javadekar, India’s minister of environment, forests and climate change, rejected constraining its growth and reducing its emission rate .  India’s first responsibility, he stated, is to reduce poverty and expand the country’s economy, rather than reduce GHG emissions.  In this regard India’s approach resembles the earlier Chinese goals.  In a change from this policy, India’s commitment for the 21st COP intends to increase its energy efficiency by 33 to 35% from its 2005 level by 2030.  This program includes a goal of expanding non-fossil fuel-derived energy (currently at a very low level) by 40% by 2030, relying on foreign assistance.  In addition it will add new forest lands to help remove CO2 from the air.  It is noteworthy that India, like China, does not state a numerical amount of actual reduction in its rate of emissions, only a slowdown in the rate of increase of its emissions.

© 2015 Henry Auer