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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dodging a CO2 hangover


Officials from Japan and other parts of the world are meeting in Bonn, Germany, until June 12 for more negotiations on a new set of global arrangements to prevent runaway climate change. The deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012, is supposed to be clinched at a climate summit convened by the United Nations in Copenhagen in December.

Concluding an effective agreement by then will be tough. But even as they defend national interests, negotiators need to bear in mind the latest evidence of the continuing buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere despite the economic slump, and the projections for a further massive rise as growth resumes, particularly in Asia.

The top U.S. energy forecaster reported recently that without new national policies and a binding international agreement to cut global warming pollution, world CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) will rise from 29 billion metric tons in 2006, to just over 33 billion tons in 2015 and 40.4 billion tons in 2030.

To put this into perspective, the expert panel of scientists and officials advising the U.N. on climate change said in its most recent report to policymakers two years ago that nearly 57 percent of the 49 billion tons of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere in 2004 came from fossil fuels.

The U.N. and the Kyoto Protocol seek to control six greenhouse gases. But just two of them, CO2 and methane (the main component of natural gas), are responsible for 91 percent of the global warming attributed to the six gases.

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said its researchers measured an extra 16.2 billion tons of CO2 and 12.2 billion tons of methane in the atmosphere in 2008 — despite the economic downturn in the second half of the year and the decline in a wide range of activities that depend on fossil fuel use.

As a result, the concentration of CO2 rose to 386 parts per million, compared to its natural level of 280 ppm before the industrial revolution began in the 1800s. This concentration is unprecedented for at least the last 650,000 years.

However, most climate researchers consider a CO2 level of 450 ppm virtually inevitable and 600 ppm difficult to avoid by 2050 if the burning of coal, oil and gas continues at anything like its present rate. Since they are the basis of our carbon-intensive economies and the cheapest available sources of energy for many countries, it will be expensive and disruptive to make a large-scale switch to less polluting renewable sources like hydro, geothermal, solar and wind power, and nuclear energy, although it can be done gradually.

The May 27 forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Administration said energy-related CO2 emissions from the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of which are among the richest and most advanced economies in the world, were declining relative to those of non-OECD developing nations.

In 2006, non-OECD fossil-fuel CO2 emissions exceeded OECD emissions by 14 percent. If recent growth and policies continue, non-OECD emissions in 2030 will amount to 25.8 billion tons, exceeding OECD emissions (14.6 billion tons) by 77 percent.

Asia, which in 2006 emitted 9 billion tons of CO2 from burning coal, oil and gas, will release 17 billion tons in 2030, making the region by far the world's leading polluter over the period.

Much of the pollution will come from coal, the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels. In 2030, CO2 emissions from China and India combined are projected to account for 34 percent of total global emissions, with China alone responsible for 29 percent.

These projections underline the need for developed countries (responsible for most of the accumulated greenhouse emissions) to reach a deal with developing countries (expected to be the source of most future emissions) on a new framework for limiting global warming gases.

Without it, the world will be like a binge-drinker whose excesses produce a nasty hangover. Scientists say that CO2 from burning fossil fuels and cutting forests is accumulating in the atmosphere twice as fast as it can be absorbed by oceans and plants.

Once released, CO2 persists for a long time. The panel advising the U.N. on climate change says about 50 percent of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, a further 30 percent will be removed within a few centuries, but the remaining 20 percent may stay for many thousands of years.

How will this affect the climate system? It depends on the level at which CO2 in the atmosphere can be stabilized.

A study by French, Swiss and U.S. scientists published in January concluded that if CO2 peaked at 450 to 600 ppm, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall in a number of areas, including southern Europe, northern Africa, the southwestern U.S., southern Africa and western Australia.

It warned that the effects would be comparable to the North America Dust Bowl in the 1930s, with decreasing water and food supplies, increased fire frequency and expanded deserts.

Scientists say that these are just a few of the many adverse consequences of global warming and climate change. The question is whether the evidence is compelling enough to convince political leaders preoccupied with short-term problems, like reviving economic growth, that the costs of taking action now to safeguard future generations is a worthwhile investment.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.


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