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.

Upper limits

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 increasingly unrealistic.

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 gases.

The United 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 says:

"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 uncertain.'"

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.

Visualising impacts

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 seconds".

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 concentrations."

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.

C-Roads _screenshot .04.png
Source: Sterman et al., (2012)

Carbon Trading

Scientists are also looking at how to make existing policy measures work better. The European Union, New Zealand and California have Emission Trading Schemes (ETSs), with China and 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 sector.

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.

Decision Deadlock

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 Brief.

"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 political will.


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