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Walker's World: From Kyoto to Doha

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Dec. 10, 2012 at 12:05 AM
LONDON, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- The sea levels are rising and the North Pole ice cap is shrinking faster than thought possible just seven years ago. Carbon emissions are soaring and Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency tells us that "the door to a 2-degree Celsius trajectory is about to close."

In plain English, that means it will take something close to a miracle to stop average temperatures rising more than 2 degrees and sea level rise down to 3 feet.

Ponder that while recalling those photographs of flooded runways at La Guardia and JFK airports during Superstorm Sandy. And anyone who thinks investing climate in tackling climate change is too expensive, consider that the White House is asking for $60 billion in cleaning up after Sandy.

Yet the annual U.N. talks on climate change, which just ended in Qatar, barely kept the Kyoto Protocol process alive until 2020, but since Russia, Canada and Japan have withdrawn from the process this only applies to nations responsible for about 15 percent of carbon emissions.

There were two useful developments at the Qatar talks, more for the promise they seek to embody than any actual achievement.

First, there is a commitment to a new U.N. pact that is supposed to be agreed by 2015 and to enter into force by 2020 which for the first time will include developing nations like China and India. Since China is the biggest emitter of carbon, whose growth in emissions last year was greater than the total emissions of France, this is important.

The second achievement is that there is a vague agreement in principle to develop a mechanism to compensate poorer and smaller nations for the costs they face from adapting to climate change. The opening bid of smaller nations for an annual $100 billion commitment for such funds was swiftly swept aside and the final text merely encourages developed nations to do more. Still, a principle has been established.

That was the result of two weeks of negotiations, held in a country with the world's highest carbon emissions per head. And it was only thanks to some fancy gavel work on the final day by a chairman who managed to head off an incipient floor revolt by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that a deal was reached that allowed delegates to go home claiming success.

But the gap between the scale of the climate change threat and the response of the world's governments is getting wider. Since 1990 when the diplomatic process began that led to the climate protocol, carbon emissions have increased 58 percent, the World Bank says. They are set to rise by 2.6 percent this year alone.

This is mainly because of the fast economic growth of developing countries. The E7, the seven leading emergent economies, (Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and China) produce more carbon emissions than the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

The good news is that the G7 countries have been making decent progress in cleaning up their act. Carbon emissions in the United States are down 7.7 percent since 2006 and over the period 2002-20 should be down 23 percent. This is partly because of power stations switching from coal to cleaner natural gas (with thanks to the shale gas revolution), partly tougher regulations in car engines and insulating buildings and partly the way in which private corporations like Walmart, Cisco and ConEd have reduced their own energy use.

Despite the proliferation of windmills and solar panels, much trumpeted but increasingly controversial in Europe, the role of renewables has so far been little more than marginal. Eurostat, the European Union's statistical arm, has released a report which finds that half of Europe's "renewable" energy comes from burning wood, which can add to overall carbon emissions.

The U.S. example demonstrates that nations can cut energy use and carbon output demanding better insulation, more efficient car engines and above all by using true renewables like nuclear energy and cleaner fossil fuels like gas. But in Europe, the green lobby is passionately anti-nuclear and seeks to stop the development of shale gas.

In Britain, at least, it looks as if the government is prepared to defy the green lobby and open the way to exploit the shale gas. It now looks as if the Bowland shale reservoir beneath Blackpool, Lancashire, known to be thicker than any shale seam in the United States, alone contains some 300 trillion cubic feet. That is enough to supply Britain for 70 years, and there is far more in seams in eastern and southern England and beneath the North Sea.

Shale gas isn't a permanent solution. It still emits carbon but it buys time for the development of better renewable technologies and for the E7 countries like China and India to accept the hard truth that they too need to stop adding to the problem and start helping to solve it.

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Topics: Fatih Birol
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