Politics & Government

Proposed emissions cuts aren't enough, U.N. says

Ice in the Arctic is melting at a faster rate.
Ice in the Arctic is melting at a faster rate. Mike Dunn/NC State Museum of Natural Sciences/NOAA/MCT

WASHINGTON — Promises by the U.S. and other industrialized countries to cut the emissions causing global warming are insufficient to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the United Nations climate chief said Wednesday.

The international climate talks, which begin Monday in Copenhagen, are a chance to "finally get climate change under control" and put all countries on a path of sustainable growth, said Yvo de Boer, the U.N. official overseeing the meeting.

However, De Boer said one of the main obstacles in the talks was that the emissions reductions offered by rich nations as a group "are not yet where science says they need to be if we're going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

He urged the U.S. and other industrialized countries to consider increasing their emissions cuts, especially "if they're sure others are pulling their weight as well."

"Secondly, I think there is more that developing nations can do, especially the major developing countries, provided they feel rich nations are showing enough leadership," he said.

The U.N. climate chief said China was doing more than following a "business as usual" path of development, as some have suggested. China's agreement to reduce the growth of its emissions was significant because it amounted to about 25 percent of the reductions needed to stabilize emissions and thereby keeping warming in check.

China and the U.S., the biggest producers of global warming gases, could strengthen their offers, de Boer said. "For both of those countries, it's an opportunity to create a new perspective, new jobs, new growth and a new direction."

Other issues to be negotiated include a call for about $10 billion per year for three years, 2010-2012, to jump start climate help for poor countries; long-term financial aid, and the exact long-term target for emission reductions.

De Boer acknowledged that China, India and other countries are opposed to a goal of cutting emissions by 50 percent by 2050, another recommendation by climate scientists. These countries worry about their future development if they have to restrict emissions to meet that requirement, he said.

President Barack Obama said last week that the U.S. would offer to cut emissions in a range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, provided that Congress agrees. That amounts to about 3 percent below 1990 levels, the internationally used standard.

Scientists have said industrialized countries should make a near-term target of 25 percent to 40 percent reductions from 1990 levels in order to get a good start on the reductions needed to increase the odds of averting irreversible climate changes such as large rise in sea level or the extinction of many species.

With the spotlight on the global fight on climate change, a congressional panel on Monday heard testimony from top scientists in the administration on climate science.

Responding to statements by some Republicans who don't think that humans are changing the climate, John Holdren, the top scientist at the White House, said that recently leaked e-mails by a group of climate scientists don't undermine decades of research that shows that burning fossil fuels is warming the Earth.

Holdren said that scientists would investigate whether the scientists who wrote the e-mails behaved badly or improperly manipulated data.

Last month, someone anonymously posted a large batch of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England on the Internet. The Internet has buzzed with the story, with those who deny climate change seizing on parts of the e-mails as proof of wrongdoing.

One of the e-mails discussed using a "trick" with temperature data.

The term "trick" is often used in science to describe ways to get around a problem in a legitimate way, Holdren said. If investigators find improper manipulation of information, "I would denounce it," he said.

"The air and the oceans are warming, mountain glaciers are disappearing, sea ice is shrinking, permafrost is thawing, the great land ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass, and sea level is rising," Holdren said in the testimony he submitted for the hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

"We know the primary cause of these changes beyond any reasonable doubt. It is the emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants . . . and from deforestation and other forms of land-use change that move carbon out of soils and vegetation and into the atmosphere."

The vast majority of scientists who've studied the climate judge that failure to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases quickly "is overwhelmingly likely to lead to changes in climate too extreme and too damaging to be adequately addressed by any adaptation measures that can be foreseen," Holdren said.

Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist and marine ecologist who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gave a demonstration of one possible outcome.

Lubchenco showed a film clip of a living lentil-sized pteropod, a snail-like ocean creature that is also called the sea butterfly. The film then showed what happened to a pteropod shell that was placed in water as acidic as the oceans are expected to become in 2100 if carbon dioxide emissions continue unchecked. Over 45 days, the shell dissolved to nothing.

Pteropods are a primary food source for juvenile salmon, pollack and other fish.


Copenhagen Diagnosis, an update on climate science

United Nations Environment Program report on new findings in climate science


NOAA proposes habitat rule for belugas in Alaska's Cook Inlet

Penn State will look at climate change emails

EPA proposes sulfur dioxide standards for first time since 1971

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