Are we Running Out of Time on Climate Change?

Doha 2012: COP 18
By Marianne De Nazareth
Freelance Journalist - India

Melting regions of Antarctica. (Image credit: NASA).
Global Warming

With over 17,000 delegates from 194 nations, the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will come to an end tomorrow at Qatar's capital Doha. This round of climate change talks occurred amidst the accelerating global warming and extreme weather conditions which got witnessed across the globe in the few past weeks.

As expected, delegates from the government, experts, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups had a "comprehensive and fair" outcome from the talks.

In a recently published UN Environment Programme (UNEP) paper, action on climate change needs to be scaled-up and accelerated without delay if the world is going to hold a global average temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius this century. The Emissions Gap Report was prepared by the UNEP and the European Climate Foundation, for the convening of the Climate Change Conference of the parties in Doha.

The important point being made was that the levels of the greenhouse gas emissions are currently around 14 per cent above where they need to be in 2020. So, instead of declining, the concentration of warming gases like carbon dioxide is actually increasing in the atmosphere up around 20 per cent since 2000.

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If no swift action is taken by nations, emissions are likely to be at 58 gigatonnes (Gt) in eight years, reveals the report which has inputs of a mind boggling 55 scientists from more than 20 countries.

The Emissions Gap Report of 2012 points out that even if the most ambitious level of pledges and commitments are implemented by all countries and conforming to rules, there will be a gap of 8 Gt of CO2 equivalents by 2020. This is 2 Gt higher than last year’s assessment with yet another year passing by.

Preliminary economic assessments, highlighted in the new report, estimate that inaction will trigger costs to be at least between 10 and 15 per cent higher post 2020 if the needed emission reductions are delayed into the following decades. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “There are two realities encapsulated in this report,that bridging the gap remains do-able with existing technologies and policies; that there are many inspiring actions taking place at the national level on energy efficiency in buildings, investing in forests to avoid emissions linked with deforestation and new vehicle emissions standards alongside a remarkable growth in investment in new renewable energies worldwide, which in 2011 totaled close to US$260 billion”.

“Yet the sobering fact remains that a transition to a low carbon, inclusive Green Economy is happening far too slowly and the opportunity for meeting the 44 Gt target is narrowing annually,” he added. “While governments work to negotiate a new international climate agreement to come into effect in 2020, they urgently need to put their foot firmly on the action pedal by fulfilling financial, technology transfer and other commitments under the UN climate convention treaties. There are also a wide range of complementary voluntary measures that can that can bridge the gap between ambition and reality now rather than later,” explained Steiner.

However, as an environmental jouranlist who has attended umpteen conferences all over the world, where scientists have proved beyond a shadow of doubt that climate change is a stark reality, we still have huge numbers of unbelievers. Why?

Running Out of Time!

Even after two decades of satellite readings which show that the mile thick Polar ice-caps are melting. Watch films on the melting Intercontinental sheet and you will be horror struck as you can see of huge chunks of ice breaking off and falling into the sea. Greenland and most of Antarctica are melting at a faster rate with galloping global warming.

So what happens to all this ice? It added about 11 millimeters to the global average sea levels between 1992 and 2011. That is about 20% increase during that period of time, those researchers reported. To you it may seem a very small number but, "Small changes in sea levels in certain places mean very big changes in the kind of protection of infrastructure that you need to have in place," said Erik Ivins, a geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and one of the contributors to the study.

In Doha at the ongoing UNFCCC Climate Change Conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an international audience, that it was time to bring home the point with those who still have doubts about global warming. The shocking destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy and other weather disasters through 2012, should be enough for the world to realise what a fragile state it is in.

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Ban Ki-moon assured time is running out for governments to act, during the ongoing annual U.N. climate talks. He cited new reports showing rising emissions of greenhouse gases, which according to scientists is the cause of the warming trend.

"The abnormal is the new normal," Ban Ki-moon said in his speech to the environment ministers and climate officials from nearly 200 countries. "This year we have seen Manhattan and Beijing under water, hundreds of thousands of people washed from their homes in Colombia, Peru, the Philippines, Australia."

He stressed that one could see, "The danger signs are all around," he expressed, noting that ice caps are melting, permafrost thawing and sea levels rising.

While the 19-year average worked out to about 20% of the rise of the oceans, "for recent years it goes up to about 30 or 40%," said Michiel van den Broeke, a professor of polar meteorology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Thermal Expansion

Greenland ice melt at the current rate, would take between 3,000 and 7,000 years to become ice-free.

Thermal expansion due to the water warming, is another reason for sea level rise. The research released was backed by the European Union, NASA, the National Science Foundation and research councils in Britain and the Netherlands. The findings were published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The project involved 47 scientists who compared readings using various satellite-based methods, including radar and laser readings and measurements of the minute gravitational changes around the ice sheets. They concluded that Greenland and two of the three ice sheets that cover Antarctica have lost an estimated 237 billion metric tons, in the past 19 years.

"Antarctica is losing mass, but it's not losing as much mass as many of the reports had suggested," Ivins said. "Greenland, on the other hand, is losing more mass today than it was in 1990 by a factor of five." From findings made using satellites that scientists have found that the Greenland ice melt at the current rate, would take between 3,000 and 7,000 years to become ice-free, said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington. "But we can see that the trend is towards increases, and that that's something we do need to worry about," Joughin said. "And that if we really want to have meaningful information that, you know, planners can use to build seawalls and things, there's going to have to be a big push to improve our projections of sea level rise using models."

In July, researchers noticed that a stretch of unusually warm temperatures melted nearly the entire surface of the Greenland ice sheet. The lead author of the study, Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds, UK said the results are clear evidence that the ice sheets are losing ground. "And the fact that our data is twice or three times as reliable as the most recent overarching assessment has to give some weight to improving the value of those model predictions in the future," he stated.

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The findings were published as representatives of UN member states are gathered in Qatar in hopes of negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which is the 1997 pact aimed at reigning in carbon emissions. That pact committed developing nations to reduce emissions with a goal of limiting the rise of global average temperatures to 2 degrees C˚ by 2100. But global emissions have gone up by about 50% since Kyoto, the World Meteorological Organization reported last week. The pact largely exempted developing nations like China and India, who are now the No. 1 and No. 3 emitters. The No. 2 producer, the United States had- never ratified the Kyoto Protocol itself.

The Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres, said: "We need to show that action on climate change, both adaptation and mitigation, is already happening, on the ground, in real life, where it is making a difference for people and for the environment. These low carbon success stories need to be told in a far more vocal way, to a much wider audience so they can motivate further action at greater scale, with faster pace. I believe that our partnership with The Climate Group, an organization with a clear focus on the role of leadership, can help us achieve this." The Climate Group's CEO Mark Kenber said: "We are delighted to be joining forces with the UN Climate Change Secretariat; their inspirational Momentum for Change initiative wants to cut through the ongoing pessimism around climate negotiations and show how low-carbon, clean revolution leadership is transforming the lives of millions around the globe. Together, we want to make sure that this happens faster, better and for more people."

Related Links:
Climate Change: A Road to the Edge (Special Page)
In COP 15, Who Wants What?
Doha Climate Change Conference - 2012
COP 18 Doha 2012
China Says "Not Optimistic" About Climate Talks
Marianne De Nazareth is a freelance journalist who contributes to The Hindu and The Deccan Chronicle in Bangalore, in addition to a host of magazines and website publications worldwide. In 2007 she upgraded her journalism skills by doing a two year degree called the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism. She now teaches Journalism to Master's degree students at St. Joseph's College.

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