Please Adjust Your Expectations


Right now, the global community is supposed to be negotiating an agreement to contain greenhouse gas emissions to manageable levels. With less than five weeks until the Copenhagen summit, however, the major players are stuck in an elaborate game of ‘chicken’.

Maybe that’s the nature of diplomacy, but some have already written off the December meeting’s capacity to produce a detailed agreement. Sir David King and Lord Stern are among many luminaries saying no deal is better than a bad deal. British economist Jeffrey Sachs agrees, warning against "a toothless agreement that could be more posturing than progress".

Columnist David Roberts sees the negotiating process so far as akin to "an aquarium full of hamsters connected to rudimentary motors. There’s a lot of frantic running, a lot of sweat and heat, but in the end, very little light".

A more significant — and worrying — assessment comes from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso who cautions the "draft text contains some 250 pages: a feast of alternative options, a forest of square brackets… If we don’t sort this out, it risks becoming the longest and most global suicide note in history".

Europe’s leading climate scientist, Potsdam Institute Director Hans Joachim Schellnuber, says the chance of getting a decent deal at this "most important meeting in the history of the human species" is pie in the sky because rich countries like America are unwilling to sign up to ambitious enough targets. "In a sense the US is climate illiterate", he concludes.

The question of "ambitious enough targets" is one that has vexed climate negotiations. With climate scientists and commentators pessimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement in Copenhagen at all, there’s a growing consensus that the targets on the table are politically determined goals, and sit at odds with the science.

For two decades, climate negotiations have been focused on policy targets aimed at preventing global warming exceeding 2 degrees Celsius — which is said to be a level of greenhouse gases not exceeding 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e). This goal — preventing global warming exceeding 2 degrees — is one which is being carried to Copenhagen.

The research tells us that a 2 degree warming will initiate large climate feedbacks on land and in the oceans, on sea-ice and mountain glaciers and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points. Likely impacts include large-scale disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets; sea-level rises; the extinction of an estimated 15 to 40 per cent of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidification and widespread drought, desertification and malnutrition in Africa, Australia, Mediterranean Europe, and the western USA.

As Schellnhuber, who is a scientific advisor to the EU and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, points out, on sea levels alone, a 2 degree rise in temperature will be catastrophic: "Two degrees … means sea level rise of 30 to 40 meters over maybe a thousand years. Draw a line around your coast — probably not a lot would be left." Just-published research on climate history shows that three million years ago — in the last period when carbon dioxide levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today — "there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25 to 40 metres higher," features associated with temperatures about 3 to 6 degrees higher than today.

It’s a grand illusion that that 2 degrees and 450ppm is a reasonable target, and one that Copenhagen will not dispel.

Yet 29 of the world’s leading scientists — including Will Steffen of the ANU, who has been advising Penny Wong’s department — have now specified less than 350 ppm CO2 as a "safe boundary" for the planet in the most significant peer-reviewed paper of the year. And it’s not hard to argue that the target needs to be a good bit less than that. As Schellnhuber has noted: "Perhaps it will not matter whether we have 270ppm or 320ppm, but operating well outside the [historic]realm of carbon dioxide concentrations is risky as long as we have not fully understood the relevant feedback mechanisms."

Yet an agreement with teeth that would actually limit warming to even 2 degrees seems most unlikely at Copenhagen. A new report by the United Nations Environment Programme finds that the world will warm by 3.5 degrees Celsius by century’s end — even if every country enacts all climate legislation it has promised to enact to date. It will require bold political leadership to reach an agreement, this year or next, which gets anywhere near a safe climate scenario. The alternative was sketched in grim detail at the recent ‘4 Degrees and Beyond’ conference at Oxford.

Another way of measuring Copenhagen’s success will be to examine its capacity to agree to actions that will allow global emissions to peak in the next decade or sooner — a move which is required to meet a 2-degree target.

Yet a quick look at what’s on the table suggests this will not be the case. Even if Annex 1 countries agree to cut emissions 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and if the large industrialising nations moderate their emissions growth by 2 per cent, the overall result will still be emissions in 2020 that are 10 to 20 per cent higher than now. That’s because global emissions this decade have grown 3.5 per cent annually, excluding the last year because of the recession.

The brutal reality, easily displayed by analysing recent work on the global carbon budget to 2050, is that even if global emissions reduce 2 per cent a year from now on, the carbon budget for 2 degrees will run out in 2030. Nothing on the negotiating table gets remotely near the figure suggested by Martin Parry of Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC’s impacts working group that a 2-degree target "would require cuts of 6 per cent per year starting in 2010".

In view of the disparity between policy goals and science, it’s easy to understand why the leading climate scientist in the United States, James Hansen, says that "We’ve reached a point where we have a crisis, an emergency, but people don’t know that… There’s a big gap between what’s understood about global warming by the scientific community and what is known by the public and policymakers." Hans Joachim Schellnhuber also sounds a gloomy note: "we are on our way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realise," he writes.

And in June 2008 Ross Garnaut wrote that "an observation of daily debate and media discussion in Australia could lead one to the view that this issue is too hard for rational policy-making in Australia. The issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long".

Is there any way to dispel the clouds of doubt hanging over Copenhagen? A good start would be a clear indication by the major participants that they will negotiate based on the science. They must accept that even those who have won political games in their own nations do not have the capacity to negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry.

Copenhagen — or more likely, a clean-up summit next year — can succeed if the scientific imperatives take centre stage. We face a climate emergency that requires emergency action. Pretending that the current approach to international negotiations can solve the issue is part of the denial about the climate catastrophe that awaits if the game isn’t played very differently, very, very soon by politicians — and by people who have the capacity to exhibit truly transformative leadership.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.