Even as most scientists say more ambitious action on global warming is needed now, expectations are low as the US and more than 190 other nations convene this week (through December 7) in oil-rich Doha, Qatar for the latest round of UN global climate talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the 18th Convention of the Parties (COP 18) to these talks.
Under the UNFCCC, leading countries have pledged to keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. At COP 17, in Durban, South Africa last year, delegates reaffirmed the two-degree target and pledged to conclude a new global climate change treaty by 2015 to take effect starting in 2020.
A report released last week by the UN Environment Program said nations’ current pledges were too weak and greenhouse gas emissions were increasing at a rate that put the world at risk without immediate action.
“Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply meters of sea-level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the science advisory group to the UN – to delegates in Doha.
“More rapid sea level rise on century timescales cannot be excluded,” he added.
In a 2007 report, the IPCC said the probability that human activity was the primary cause of climate change was “at least 90 percent.”
Pachauri told Reuters late on Wednesday he expected IPCC would raise the level of likelihood even higher in its next report, due in 2013.
The World Bank issued a report last week suggesting that a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 could result in widespread crop failures, malnutrition and significant sea-level rise.
The World Meteorological Organization said 2012 was on track to be the ninth-hottest on record.
Developing nations fault industrial countries for failing to cut emissions quickly enough. The US has pledged a 17 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 and the EU pledged 20 percent – levels not projected to meet the UN’s two-degree goal.
China is against capping greenhouse-gas emissions in developing nations by 2020, because adopting such early targets would constrain economic growth, they say.
In his 2012 acceptance speech, President Barack Obama said the environment was high on his list of priorities. “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” said Obama.
In his first post-election press conference last week the president said while he remains no less concerned about climate change, US economic development was his first priority.
“There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that,” said the president.
Todd D. Stern, the US State Department’s special envoy for climate change, has been the government’s chief negotiator at UN climate talks since 2009. “This year was understood as a year of conceptual thinking about what the shape of the 2020s ought to be,” said Todd in a recent New York Times interview.
The COP 18 talks may accomplish an extension of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol emissions agreement that set different terms for advanced and developing countries. President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Treaty in 1998, but did not submit it to the Senate for advice and consent.
President George W. Bush pulled out of the Treaty in 2001, principally citing lack of controls over developing nations like India and China – following intensive lobbying by fossil fuel interests.
Canada, Japan and Russia have already announced they will not sign up for a second commitment period. The big players left in Kyoto are Europe and Australia, representing only about 10 percent of global emissions.
“If…we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support,” the president added at his post-election press conference.
President Obama on Tuesday signed a law to keep US airlines from paying for the carbon their planes emit flying into and out of Europe. The carbon fee bill was the first piece of legislation debated in the House after the Thanksgiving recess. It passed unanimously in the Senate in September.
A White House spokesperson told The Hill newspaper: “The Obama administration is firmly committed to reducing harmful carbon pollution from civil aviation both domestically and internationally, but, as we have said on many occasions, the application of the EU [Emissions Trading System] to non-EU air carriers is the wrong way to achieve that objective.”
With regard to achieving a universally binding agreement on climate change “Time is running out,” said the UNFCC executive secretary, Christiana Figueres, at a news conference in Doha.
“The door is closing fast on us because the pace and the scale of action is simply not yet where it must be,” she added.