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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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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The December 2015 Paris Conference on Global Warming

The U.N. is convening a conference in Paris in December 2015 whose objective is to finalize a new treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In contrast to the Kyoto Protocol which expired in 2012, the draft treaty under consideration would apply equally to all nations and would achieve reductions in emissions by stated policy objectives developed domestically by each nation.  This new framework is intended to overcome fundamental points of contention among nations that arose from the Kyoto Protocol.

At the time of writing 161 out of the 193 nations participating in the Paris conference have submitted their emission reduction commitments.  Examples from the U.S., China and India are presented and contrasted here.  A recent survey of public opinion from 40 countries indicates wide support for an agreement to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.  It is hoped that the conference will succeed in agreeing to a final treaty, and that it will be ratified by the U.N.’s member nations.

Yes, we do care about global warming!  2015 up through September is the warmest period in the recorded data starting in 1880, as reflected by the worldwide average temperature.  The long-term drought in California differs from earlier ones in that it has been made worse by higher temperatures, in addition to other factors that have reduced rain and snow.  Many extreme weather events around the world during 2014 have been statistically linked to global warming according to a detailed analysis in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, although in other cases “failure to find a human fingerprint could be due to insufficient data or poor models”, not to an actual finding that such events are not linked to warming.  Rising sea levels from melting ice on Greenland  and Antarctica cause continuing coastal flooding around the world.  This trend is projected to get worse in the next few centuries because, averaged over a year, more ice melts than is restored by snowfall.

These examples are significant because they show the worsened conditions of human life and wellbeing around the world.  Extreme events create unscheduled needs for major new infrastructure spending, a burden that ultimately winds up being shared by the taxpaying public.

The global average temperature is directly related to the total of the accumulated greenhouse gases (GHGs), especially carbon dioxide (CO2), in the atmosphere.  Humans add CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels; most of that CO2 then remains in the atmosphere for centuries, relentlessly building up the accumulated amount.  There are no natural processes that remove the added CO2 on the (geologically) short time scales needed, i.e., on the time scale over which we are adding it.  Because the CO2 does not go away, nothing we do now can take us back to lower CO2 levels prevalent, say, 50 or 100 years ago, and their lower average temperatures.  For this reason we need to decarbonize the world’s energy economy as soon as we can so that we keep the temperature increase as small as we can. 

The Kyoto Protocol.  In 1997 the members of the United Nations agreed to the Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto) to reduce emission rates of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  From the beginning of U.N.-sponsored negotiations on climate change the differing circumstances of developed countries and developing countries have provided a fundamental source of contention between these groups (see the Details section at the end of this post).  Kyoto excused developing countries from its constraints; only the already industrialized nations were to be bound by its terms.  Those countries were to reduce their emissions of GHGs by predetermined, but relatively small, amounts, by 2012.  Because developing countries were exempted, and for other reasons, (see Details) the U. S. Senate in 1997 voted 95-0 not to consider Kyoto, so the U. S. has not been bound by its obligations.  At the time the rates of GHG emissions from developing countries were far below those for industrialized countries, but were projected to exceed them in the coming years in view of intensive industrialization policies of the developing countries.

Kyoto came into force in 2005, binding those countries that ratified it, and expired in 2012.  Kyoto was not a successful framework for curtailing worldwide GHG emissions, even though a major party to it, the nations of the European Union, made credible progress in that direction.  As 2012 approached, Canada formally withdrew from Kyoto.   Negotiations to extend Kyoto in an agreement to include all U. N. members failed in 2009 and made scant progress in subsequent annual meetings through 2012.  Japan and Russia indicated they would not agree to an extension of Kyoto.

International Progress after 2012.  In the past few years scientists and officials have come to realize that greenhouse warming of the planet is proceeding unabated, and that many harmful consequences foreseen in earlier scientific reports are actually coming to pass.  These include intense heat waves, droughts made worse by the higher temperatures, dramatic forest wildfires, storms with intense precipitation and flooding, and rising sea levels.   At the meetings negotiators appreciated more clearly that these effects are significant.  Also, principals recognized the failings of Kyoto, especially that it was unproductive to divide the world’s nations into two groups, and to impose target emission limits from above on a nation-by-nation basis.

The U. N. conference in Paris, December 2015.  The effort currently under way is to agree to a new treaty during the worldwide U. N. conference meeting in Paris in December 2015, and have it take effect by 2020.  A framework of voluntary national pledges by industrialized countries, without obligation, was put forth during the annual conference in Cancun in 2010, while these countries were to provide financial and technological assistance to developing countries. 

By the following year in Durban all nations agreed to limit emissions.  This pledge would bring major emitters from the developing world such as China and India, on the one hand, and the U. S., not bound by Kyoto, on the other, under the same legal framework for reducing emissions, thereby limiting the accumulation of GHGs.  This feature is a crucial concession from both sides of the emissions argument.

By 2015, the notion of having a binding treaty agreed to by all participants in the conference still remains in place.  Instead of having emission limits incorporated into the treaty, however, the draft treaty now suggests that every nation, whether developed or developing, submit voluntary pledges, termed “intended nationally determined contributions”, for reductions in emission rates in advance of the convening of the Paris conference.

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.  As of November 12, 2015 161 nations, of a total of 193 U.N. member states, have submitted their contribution statements.  Here we summarize those for three major sources of GHG emissions.  The U.S. is a major contributor to the emissions from industrialized countries.  It is pledging to reduce its GHG emission rate by 26-28% below the level of 2005 by 2025.  China, a developing country, is currently the nation with the highest GHG emissions in the world; it will be responsible for a major portion of historical and projected emissions up to 2035.  It pledges that its annual emission rate will continue increasing until about 2030, then begin falling.  India, also a developing country, has been increasing its fossil fuel-driven energy production at similar (high) annual rates of growth as China, although its absolute numerical production is much lower.  The pledges by China and India are not stated in quantified numerical amounts, but rather in terms of reaching an unspecified maximum annual rate of emission by 2030, and reducing the annual rate thereafter.  (Please see Details below for further discussion of these three cases.)


Kyoto established an unworkable two-tiered division among nations of the U. N., applying nation-by-nation numerical goals for reducing GHG emissions only to the set of industrialized nations.  As a result, the U. S., the nation with the highest annual emission rates at the time, did not ratify the protocol (see Details) and so was not bound by its terms.

Over the next 15 years the U. N. nations sought unsuccessfully to agree on a treaty to take effect as Kyoto’s term drew to a close.  These negotiations were pursued along the same lines as Kyoto, codifying emission rate reductions and trying to resolve the divisions between industrialized and developing countries.  Over this period warming continued mostly unrestrained as emission rates increased.  Climate scientists repeatedly issued reports warning of the harmful consequences of worldwide inaction during this period.

The upcoming conference in Paris in early December 2015 will consider a radically different draft treaty.  First, all U.N. member nations are to be constrained by its terms, eliminating the division of nations into two groups.  And second, rather than imposing numerical emission rate reductions within the framework of the treaty, each nation is to submit its own domestically-generated emission reduction goals to the U.N. (see examples in Details).  Clearly mechanisms for measuring, reporting and validating each nation’s emission rates have to be included in the treaty.  The draft further suggests that nations submit additional, more robust reductions of emission rates in future years.  Other aspects of the draft deal with finance, and land use change and reforestation.

Forward-looking problems may still persist for decarbonizing the energy economy, however.  The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook warns that plans currently being discussed for limiting emission rates may be too slow.  Another report   discloses that China’s accounting of historical use of coal may have underestimated the actual amount by 17%.  Yet another account discusses the difficulties that India will face as it seeks to reduce emission rates while still accommodating the needs of its growing population, expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2030.

Public opinion in 39 of 40 countries surveyed (except Pakistan) agrees that global GHG emissions need to be reduced, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.  About 70% of polled people in the U.S. and China supported this view.  Polls such as this should provide strong support for negotiators to approve a final treaty this year.

Conclusion.  The draft treaty that will be considered at the Paris conference has the potential of resolving the difficulties identified in the U.S. at the time Kyoto was under consideration.  All nations are to be bound by its terms in equitable fashion.  And commitments for reduced GHG emission rates will be generated within each nation and deposited with the U.N. for reporting and verification.  These terms should significantly allay the scientific, political and economic concerns that were voiced in the U.S. Congress when Kyoto was under consideration (see Details).  We fervently hope that the Paris conference will succeed in agreeing to a final treaty, which will then be considered for adoption by each U.N. member nation.  In particular, the U.S. Senate should be able to consider such a treaty in a favorable light.


Differing points of view between developed and developing countries in Kyoto.  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, consider equity as supporting a policy that developing countries should constrain their emissions since they are now the ones most responsible for expanding the world’s burden of atmospheric GHGs.  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 emphasize 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.

U. S. Congressional Remarks on Kyoto.  The following paragraphs provide quotes from the Congressional Record of comments in both the House of Representatives and the Senate regarding Kyoto.  They refer to the Sense of the Senate, Senate Resolution (S. R.) 98, offered by Senators Byrd and Hagel, objecting to Kyoto.  It was approved by a vote of 95-0 late in 1997.

Senator Byrd, January 29, 1998: “Now…I am not a scientist…I just sense that something is going on out there….[S]cientific evidence suggests [that]…should global warming occur, by the time we have absolute confirmation…it might well be too late to take preventative action.…I believe that it might be prudent to undertake cost-effective measures to deal with the risk of climate change as a form of global insurance policy.

“Kyoto…did not satisfy the two [Byrd-Hagel] goals that were agreed upon: ‘the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol…which would—(A) mandate new commitments to limit or reduce  [GHG] emissions for [developed countries] unless the protocol…also mandates new …commitments…for Developing countr[ies], or (B) would result in serious harm to the economy of the [U.S.]….Kyoto…did not meet either of these two Senate standards’….

“The standard response from the developing world is to argue that the industrialized nations should make all of the reductions, because of the developed world’s historically high levels of [GHG] emissions.… 

“But this argument is…unsound….China…will become the largest emitter of CO2…during the first half of the next century, surpassing the [U.S.]”  (In fact this happened already by about 2009.)

Representative Hamilton, February 3, 1998:  Mr. Hamilton was an expert on foreign affairs.  He quoted from his newsletter: “Developing countries argue that they are not the chief source of emissions, and they cannot reduce fossil fuel use without harming economic growth.  The…contribution of developing countries [to GHGs] is expected to rise over the next decade.

U.S. business and labor groups strongly oppose allowing developing countries to reduce emissions [more slowly] than industrial countries.  This discrepancy…will encourage companies to move operations to developing countries with lower energy prices—and take thousands of jobs with them.

“The pressing question is how much should we sacrifice now to buy insurance against unknown future threats….

“[G]radual steps now to reduce reliance on fossil fuels could prevent disruptive climate change later—change that could severely damage the economies of the world.  If we do not get this right, our grandchildren will not—and should not—forgive us.”

Representative Peterson, March 12, 1998: “Here are some risks not mentioned by [Kyoto] treaty supporters: the risk that energy suppression mandates will devastate employment in major U. S. industries; that rising [energy] prices will depress the living standards of American families; [and] that new tax and regulatory policies will…risk the surrendering of more U. S. sovereignty to the U.N.”

Representative Danner, March 18, 1998 :  “I express my opposition to…Kyoto…. Economists predict that [it] will have a devastating and disproportionate effect on…the [U. S.]  Further, these…reductions [apply] only to developed nations and do not apply to developing nations such as India and China, two of the worst violators [of GHG] emissions.”

Senator Hagel, April 20, 1998 :  S. R. 98 “directed the President not to sign any treaty that placed legally binding obligations on the [U. S.] to limit or reduce [GHG] emissions unless—unless—the … agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit [GHG] emissions for Developing Countr[ies]…Meaning simply that if this was a global problem, it required a global solution….

“Numerous … economic studies predicted serious … harm, [including] job losses in the range of over 2 million, large increases in energy costs,…a drop in economic growth rates of more than 1 percent…and major American industries being driven out of business….”

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The intended contributions of the U.S., China and India, submitted to the U.N. in preparation for the Paris conference, 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 has been increasing its use of coal and other fossil fuels dramatically since Kyoto was negotiated, emphasizing its justification to industrialize rapidly.  Its emission rates continue growing because it is adding new fossil fuel-driven electric generating plants to power its expanding economy.  Its reconsidered goals were outlined in the summit meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Obama in 2014.  Its goal, confirmed for the U. N.’s  Paris conference, 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, to increase 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 justification resembles the earlier Chinese development goals. 

In a change from this policy, India’s commitment for the Paris conference 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