How is science underpinning the climate talks in Doha?
- 26 Nov 2012, 16:15
- Roz Pidcock
Could laptop models help negotiators imagine the impacts of
climate change? How could emissions accounting be improved to
include land use? With the UN's COP18 international climate talks
starting today, we look at some recent developments in science and
political research that can play a part in helping countries cut
their greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate scientists' predictions go to the heart of the UNFCCC
process. Scientists first suggested in 2007 that to avoid serious
climate change, global mean temperature rise should not exceed two
degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But as three
different reports out last week highlight, this target looks
According to the World Meteorological Office (WMO), carbon
dioxide has continued to rise at a fairly constant rate
for the past decade, reaching a record high this year along
with methane and nitrous oxide - two other important greenhouse
Nations Environment Programme has said the "emissions gap" -
the difference between government pledges to reduce emissions and
what is needed to stabilise global temperature rise at two degrees
- is widening.
And according to the World Bank, without further action,
the world is likely to warm by more than three degrees.
What's going wrong?
Research is starting to look into why stern warnings from the
scientific community don't seem to resonate with decision makers.
A recent study suggests that the collective fear of passing a
dangerous threshold will only spur action if the threshold is
perceived to be concrete. But as lead author Professor Scott
Barrett from the University of Columbia told Carbon Brief, the
evidence base on climate change does not operate on hard limits. He
"Science does not say that 2 degrees
Celsius is any more special than, say, 2.1 degrees or 1.9
degrees...[T]here are also uncertainties in the carbon cycle,
making the link between emissions and concentrations
Rather than this "targets and timetables" approach to
negotiations, Barrett suggests the careful application of trade
restrictions and technology standards for new emission-reducing
technologies could have a more positive outcome.
Decision-makers need a better grasp of the impacts of climate
change, says another
recent study. Instead of relying on negotiators to interpret
the complex climate models that scientists use, a team led by
Professor John Sterman from the MIT Sloan School of Management has
created a more intuitive model capturing the best available
scientific understanding of the climate. And unlike typical climate
models, they say their model "runs on an ordinary laptop in
Sterman told Carbon Brief that this means:
"UNFCCC negotiators to policymakers and
legislators to business leaders to the general public can learn for
themselves how emissions and energy policies affect global GHG
Users can set a range of different emissions scenarios for any
nation and visualise the effect on, for example, global mean
temperature change, sea level and ocean acidity. The model is
already used by the United States, China and in the UNEP Emissions
Gap reports, with the potential to extend to other key UNFCCC
parties, say the researchers.
Sterman et al., (2012)
Scientists are also looking at how to make existing policy
measures work better. The European
California have Emission Trading Schemes (ETSs), with
Australia set to follow suit in 2015. Under these schemes,
industries - such as power stations, refineries and factories - buy
permits from the government to cover their greenhouse gas
emissions. Those who manage to cut their emissions can sell permits
on to others.
Carbon trading applies only to direct emissions, but changes in
land use can indirectly emit large amounts of greenhouse gases,
too. Researchers from the University of Gotenberg found that
draining wetlands for agricultural use in Sweden produces the
same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the industrial
And in Brazil, new regulations to allow the conversion of up to
36 per cent of wetlands into shrimp ponds could hugely increase
carbon dioxide emissions, according to a
recent analysis in Nature Climate Change. At the moment, these
emissions are not included in Brazil's emissions statistics.
One way to account for countries' indirect emissions is to
extend carbon trading to cover changes in land use, a movement that
the EU could take responsibility for spearheading, suggests
Dr Stavros Afionis from the Centre for Climate Change Economics
and Policy (CCCEP) at the University of Leeds in the UK.
Science has the potential to help negotiators at Doha, but
deciding what action to take doesn't just rely on the evidence
base. The way in which decisions are made at UN climate summits - a
consensus among all participating countries - is
severely hampering meaningful progress, according to a recent
study in Nature Climate Change.
The researchers suggest a cap on the number of people per
delegation that "allows broad representation across government
departments and sectors of society while maintaining a manageable
overall size". In recent years, developed countries have increased
their delegation size, which not only makes arriving at a unanimous
decision difficult but also weakens the negotiating power of less
developed nations with smaller delegations.
Getting a cap on delegation size is unlikely to be simple,
however, as such a decision must be put to a vote. As lead
researcher on the study, Dr Heike Schroeder, explained to Carbon
"Majority voting would make it more
likely that urgent action is taken, but it will be very hard
politically to get all those countries that are stalling their
commitment to mitigating climate change to agree to this."
Striking the right balance
So where does that leave us? On top of the basic climate science
underpinning why we need emission reductions, new research is also
helping to pinpoint flaws in the current system and lay the
groundwork for progress. But while scientists and political
researchers can offer the most up-to-date guidance and
recommendations, action in Doha and beyond still hinges largely on