Climate Change: The Road to Copenhagen


By kind invitation of Graham Stuart MP, Larry Schweiger, President & CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and Barbara Bramble, Director of International Affairs at the National Wildlife Federation, spoke about the latest developments in the US Senate and how these will be problematic for the negotiations in Copenhagen.  


We are seeing some alarming signs of some very dramatic tipping points. Change in the Arctic will be extremely problematic in the future. There are now three scientific assessments that suggest that there is an 80 per cent chance that in the next decade, we will lose the Arctic Ice during the late summer season. This gives rise to deep concerns on what really happens to countries in the far north as a result of the increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere.

Soil sequesters much more carbon than people realize. The Arctic soil holds 60 per cent more carbon than was estimated in earlier studies. Another problem is the Siberian Tundra which is leaking carbon at significant rates. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks performed a study in the region which found that there is five times more methane leaking from the Siberian Tundra than what was previously thought. Methane is an even more-potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. We are also seeing increased methane leaking from the oceans, for example, off the coast of Norway.

As a result of the rapid changes in the atmosphere there have been declines in world forests. Worldwide fires are increasing rapidly, as forests today are much more susceptible to fire due to mismanagement. In the US, there has been a four-fold increase in forest fires and a six-fold increase in burn victims. There is significant forest loss around the world. Russian forests lost 28 million acres in 2004, which is about the size of the state of Pennsylvania in the US. There is also massive pine needle damage that can be seen all throughout Canada and the US. Maintaining forests is critical because they sequester a large amount of carbon. For example, the forests in Canada have had the best record of preservation and therefore carbon sequestration in the world. But in five of the last ten years, the Canadian forests have actually lost more carbon than they stored. This trend is unfortunately projected to continue in eight of the next ten years in Canada, but also speaks to a larger problem. Instead of these forests being maintained as carbon sinks, they have become carbon sources and therefore part of the problem.

There are other signals that can be noted. The IPCC report states that 20-30 per cent of all plant and animal species face extinction if global temperatures increase by two to four degrees. This is one reason why the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is concerned, as they are already seeing species losses, due to the temperature increases. In the US, the NWF has been working hard to get the climate bill passed in the Senate, one of over 800 organisations involved in the effort Although the House did not pass the exact bill the NWF wished for, the Senate will hopefully pass a climate bill that will continue to move things in the right direction.  The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was very important to the climate bill passing in the House and although action in the Senate will not occur in time for the summit in Copenhagen, 71 per cent of American people favouring the climate bill signals the presence of a strong interest in the US to pass it.

The climate bill passed in the House includes large investments in alternative energy technologies. It includes 150 billion dollars to be invested in clean energy, which will create about 1.7 million new jobs in the US. Wind and solar will be important aspects of an American clean energy strategy. According to some recent articles, the US can produce about 35 per cent of its energy from wind sources. Forests will also be a priority in the climate bill. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts that if the climate bill passes in the Senate, it will create 80 million acres of new or restored forest in the US, which will play a large role in sequestering carbon and becoming additional carbon sinks. Additionally, the bill will help sequester carbon in American soil once again, most of which has been lost because of the poor management over the years.
As soon as the health care bill has been passed – which is the biggest challenge in the Senate right now – the climate bill will hopefully be passed. Senator John Kerry, an environmental leader in the Senate, has always been and will continue to be extraordinarily important to this effort. He has made it a deep personal commitment to get the climate bill passed and is trying to get senators from the Republican side to help him.

The partnership between organizations and Congress in terms of the climate bill will continue. Barbara is part of the international department of NWF. Their role is to align international agreements and US legislation so that they are consistent and as strong as possible. We are trying to bring back the sense of responsibility for our country, but getting the climate bill passed is the first priority, so that is where most of our work is focused.

Many are asking if there will be a deal in Copenhagen. This depends on what the word ‘deal’ means, as there is a difference between a legally-binding agreement and a political agreement. In 1992 there was a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed and ratified by most countries, including the United States. Nothing really happened with it until the Kyoto protocol was created in 1997—which the US did not ratify. That is when the problems began, for the Senate voted 95 to zero against the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. This left only the other developed countries and most developing countries to work on furthering the Kyoto Protocol.

Right now, we are trying to get back to a path that all countries can be on, but that will entail knitting together two vital pieces. The first is the Kyoto Protocol (which most countries are in agreement on) and the second is the US position on climate change.  Two years ago in Bali, a decision was taken to try to reach an agreement that links these two pieces together in Copenhagen.
Many questions remain. What will the emission reduction targets of the developed countries be?  What will be the appropriate mitigating actions of the developing countries?  What are the financial commitments for the costs of adaptation of the inevitable damage from climate change? And what will the future costs of a low carbon transition entail? These are the four main questions, but the prerequisites to answers for any of them have made preparation for Copenhagen move slowly.
There has been much movement around the world. The UK has been the most forthcoming in terms of legally-binding rules. It has aspirations to reach a 26 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and an 80 per cent reduction by 2050. Some other countries are also going public with aspirations.  Brazil has had that it wants to reach a 40 per cent reduction by 2020. Additionally, the EU is talking about a 20 per cent reduction, which rises to 30 per cent if other nations make similar commitments.

Ultimately though, no country will move until the US moves, and the US cannot make a move until the Senate passes a climate bill. Thus, two issues are prominent in the international negotiations leading to the summit in Copenhagen.  One is the different responsibilities of global action for developing countries and developed countries. For example, it must be decided who among the developing countries is obliged to make emissions reductions requirements into real commitments, and by when? The second issue is a legal one. What sort of framework will Kyoto and the ‘new’ agreement have?  Do we just change the name? Do we throw out the Kyoto rules and build something completely new? Do we get the US to sign Kyoto?

None of these problems will be solved until the US has something to put on the negotiating table and is willing to join an international regulatory framework. Although that is ultimately the only solution, Copenhagen will not be a waste of time, for if we come away with a commitment from the Heads of States to act as soon as the US gets its own act together, Copenhagen will have been a success.


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