Global emissions of carbon dioxide are rising again after the drop caused by the recession, and may reach record levels this year, but the annual UN summit to combat climate change that starts in the Mexican resort city of Cancún on November 29 is not expected to even start tackling the major causes.
The November 29 to December 10 summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is starting with the convention president, Mexico’s foreign minister Patricia Espinosa, saying: “We know that Cancún will not be the end of our road to stabilise the global average temperature, but must be a significant step towards that end.”
After last year’s climate summit in Copenhagen ended in fiasco, expectations from this summit are down anyway, with the UN pushing for small concrete steps to tackle global warming while an overarching treaty remains bogged down in geopolitics.
But as a senior member of the US government delegation said on the sidelines of the Bali climate summit in 2007, “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed”. Such cynical horse trading is likely to flare up between developing and developed countries again, with poorer nations seeking money and cheap technologies so that they can adapt to the climate-change effects that are here already, and can move towards a greener economy.
Richer nations continue to insist that they must be allowed to monitor all greening projects. Plus, while they themselves are unwilling to commit to a percentage by which they will cut their own greenhouse-gas emissions, they want to know when emerging economies like India and China will cap their emissions.
India has been playing a mediator’s role in this debate for over a year now and, earlier this month, environment minister Jairam Ramesh came up with a plan by which the global community, rather than a single country, would verify the greening projects – the so-called international consultation and assessment (ICA) scheme. Ramesh said recently: “Some countries have welcomed the idea heartily, while some others have said they need to study it further. No one has rejected it outright.”
While the move does show a way out of the impasse, developing countries are unhappy because they have no clear idea of how much of the US$30 billion rich countries promised them between 2010 and 2012 has actually been paid or even committed. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said “the commitments would total up to US$28 billion” but she did not know how much of it was repackaged aid money and how much was “new and additional”, an issue that worries poor countries greatly.
"Only US$3 billion has been formally allocated for adaptation" to climate change, says Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development. "There is also a danger that some of this could come in the form of loans which would further indebt already poor nations and force them to pay to fix a problem that the developed nations created."
Of the US$30 billion, about US$4 billion has been earmarked for forestry, and this may be one area which sees substantial progress during this summit, with plantation projects slated to start in some developing countries.
The fight against deforestation has actually seen some success in 2009, according to an international research team led by the University of Exeter in Britain. They have found that “global emissions from deforestation have decreased through the last decade by more than 25% compared to the 1990s and account now for about a tenth of the emissions from all human activity," according to Pep Canadell of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Canadell is executive director of the Global Carbon Project and a co-author of the study.
Earlier, deforestation used to account for 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the main GHG which leads to climate change, which is already causing sea levels to rise, affecting farm output worldwide and making droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe. A recent study by Indian scientists, coordinated by the environment ministry, confirmed that India, especially its Himalayan region and its long coastline, is one of the worst affected countries.
Another encouraging recent discovery has come from deep in the earth’s oceanic crust, where scientists have recently found bacteria that can eat hydrocarbons and natural gas, and have the genetic potential to store carbon.
The researchers, from Oregon State University in the US, reveal a possible role for the deep ocean crust in carbon dioxide storage and fixation by pumping carbon dioxide into deep subsea layers where it might be sequestered permanently. Oceans cover about 70 % of the earth’s surface.
"This is a new ecosystem that almost no one has ever explored," said Martin Fisk, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. "We expected some bacterial forms, but the long list of biological functions that are taking place so deep beneath the earth is surprising."
At a site in the Atlantic Ocean near an undersea mountain, the Atlantis Massif, scientists from Oregon State University drilled more than 4,600 feet into rock that was both very deep and very old, and found a wide range of biological activity. Microbes were degrading hydrocarbons, some appeared to be capable of oxidising methane, and there were genes active in the process of fixing, or converting from a gas, both nitrogen and carbon.
But the big problem continues to get more serious, with global emissions of carbon dioxide likely to reach record levels in 2010, according to the research team led by the University of Exeter. The 2009 drop in emissions due to the global financial crisis will be more than offset by renewed growth in fossil fuel burning in 2010.
Global carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in 2009 were only 1.3% below the record 2008 figures, despite the financial crisis that hit the world last year, the scientists calculated. This is less than half the reduction predicted a year ago.
The global financial crisis affected western economies worst, leading to large reductions in their emissions. Emissions in Britain were 8.6 % lower in 2009 than in 2008. Similar figures apply to the United States, Japan, France, Germany and most other industrialised nations.
But the economic performance of emerging economies was strong despite the financial crisis, and they recorded substantial increases in emissions – China’s emissions rose 8% in 2009, and India’s 6.2%.
Pierre Friedlingstein, lead author of the study, added: "The carbon intensity of world GDP, which is the amount of carbon dioxide released per unit of GDP, improved by only 0.7% in 2009 – well below its long-term average of 1.7% per year."
The study projects that if the global economy grows as expected, global fossil-fuel emissions will increase by more than 3% in 2010, approaching the high emissions growth rates observed through 2000 to 2008.
Despite this backdrop, the thousands of negotiators from 193 countries gathering here continue to bicker about whether rich countries should continue to commit emission reduction under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or some other international compact. All developing countries and China are adamant that they must do so, and Mexico’s foreign minister stated the same on the eve of the summit. But the absence of the US from the protocol is prompting other rich countries to move away from it.