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Graphing climate policy progress

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At the IPCC’s twentieth birthday party Sunday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urged the diplomats present to get moving – now – on the post-Kyoto climate treaty. “We must fight the urge to postpone everything until Copenhagen,” where the treaty is to be finalized in 2009, ”">he said. “Surely we can make concrete progress on some issues."

How much progress? The glass-half-full view is that the latest talks, wrapping up in Accra, Ghana, last week, already took some modest but visible steps forward – particularly on reducing emissions from deforestation and heavy industry. On the other hand, the major climate conference in Poznan, Poland, this December happens while President Bush is still in office, meaning that any change in the US stance is on hold until 2009.

And if this year’s meeting prepares the ground well enough to avoid bitter eleventh-hour struggles over crucial divisions in Copenhagen, it will be a historic first.

To mark the IPCC’s anniversary, NRCC debuted a timeline of the international policy debates that first gave birth to the IPCC, and then were shaped by its findings. In sifting through accounts of past climate negotiations while working on the timeline, I was struck by the invariable tales of gruesome battles into the wee hours. The classic was Kyoto in 1997, as reported by the Washington Post:

As delegates worked well into the 11th day of a scheduled 10-day conference, the gathering degenerated into near chaos overnight. Before the final agreement was signed, official interpreters who had worked through the night went home, leaving Russian, Japanese and European delegates often unable to communicate fully with each other on key remaining issues.

The conference dining hall was down to just a few bananas, as hungry and exhausted delegates worked without food or coffee, and the thousands of environmental and industrial activists and journalists covering the event shivered through the wee hours in a press gallery where the heat had apparently been turned off. Movers waiting to assemble a trade show in the convention hall waited for the United Nations to conclude its business and move out.

As far as I can tell, conference organizers thereafter learned to leave the heat on and the coffee flowing. The stubborn standoffs kept recurring through last year’s drama in Bali and beyond.

The other thing that pops out is the way emissions targets have shifted since international meetings started calling them out in 1988 – the same year the IPCC was born (see graph above). IPCC reports in the last twenty years have painted human-caused climate change with increasing certainty and detail, and policymakers have generally responded by promising deeper and deeper greenhouse gas cuts – but further and further out in the future.

Adhering to these policy ideals would produce a lovely, consistently descending emissions trajectory. Instead, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions have been rocketing upward.

On the record at least, official reports suggest that many wealthy countries making these promises have done a reasonably good job keeping them. Developed countries who are part of the Annex I group of signatories to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have reported roughly stable carbon dioxide emissions under that treaty’s rules. (Reported carbon dioxide emissions including changes from land use, shown above, dropped 1.4% from 1990 to 2005; carbon emissions excluding land-use change, not shown, rose 1%. The corresponding numbers for all greenhouse gases show bigger drops, 2.8% and 4.6%.)

The story on the ground is more complex. You have large countries like the US, Canada and Australia that have greatly upsized their emissions since 1990, while most of the UNFCCC cuts have been contributed by the former eastern block (labeled EIT in this graph), the result of their economic struggles. Somewhere in the middle are countries like the UK: when you add in emissions not covered by the UNFCCC, its officially falling carbon counts turn into flat or rising ones (see here and here).

And a more basic caveat, of course, is that the IPCC’s warnings are based on soaring global emissions, which are nowhere near under control. No matter how heroic the overtime negotiations, wrangling out a shared long-term vision is just the start.

Anna Barnett


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    Mark Bahner said:

    This is an interesting graph. However, it’s also a potentially misleading graph.

    The hollow circles represent worldwide emissions, whereas most, if not all, of the other symbols (e.g. kyoto) are targets for selected sets of countries.

    The graph should note which symbols are for worldwide emissions, and which symbols are for selected sets of countries.

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