Cool heads needed in Bonn for five-day talks on climate change

As the 2015 global agreement looms, can a session on its ‘scope, structure and design’ get negotiations back on track?


More than two decades have passed since Margaret Thatcher, as British prime minister, delivered a remarkable speech to the second World Climate Conference, in Geneva, warning that global warming was a greater threat to the world than “tyrants and their tanks”.

Speaking in November 1990, long in advance of the first Earth Summit, she said: “Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community [and] the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order.”

Thatcher acknowledged the scientific uncertainties but said there was “already a clear case” for taking precautionary action. “Climate change may be less than predicted. But equally it may occur more quickly than the present computer models suggest. Should this happen, it would be doubly disastrous were we to shirk the challenge now.”

There hasn’t been much sign of rare statesmanship in the rounds of negotiations that followed year after year since Berlin in 1995; that’s when the equally formidable Angela Merkel, then Germany’s environment minister, brought down the gavel at the first conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Ironically, it was when more than 120 heads of state or government turned up for the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009 that things really fell apart. The hopes of so many that a meaningful global agreement would be reached were dashed, while the trust between rich and poor countries – always quite fragile – was shattered.

Since then, however, 194 countries have committed themselves to reaching a comprehensive agreement in 2015 under the so-called Durban Platform. That’s why their climate-change negotiators, including all the big players, are travelling to Bonn this weekend for a five-day session on the “scope, structure and design” of such a deal.

The talks have been given added impetus by the bitterly cold weather that gripped much of the northern hemisphere this spring – which some scientists have attributed to the dramatic decline in Arctic summer sea ice – as well as record heatwaves in Australia and the devastating impact of Superstorm Sandy on the US east coast.

The catalogue of weather-related natural disasters also included exceptional flooding in China, Pakistan, the Philippines and Nigeria, and near-record droughts in Russia and the US against the backdrop of confirmation by the World Meteorological Organisation that the first decade of this century was the hottest on record.

Nonetheless, as the Economist noted on March 30th, global average surface temperatures over the past 15 years “have been flat while greenhouse gas emissions have continued to soar” – reaching a new record of 35.6 billion tonnes last year, despite the effects of a deep recession.

“The mismatch between rising greenhouse gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzles in climate science just now,” according to the Economist . After all, if the cause-and-effect link between growing emissions and increasing temperatures stood up, the world should be getting measurably hotter year by year.

It “might mean that – for some unexplained reason – there has been a temporary lag between more carbon dioxide and higher temperatures in 2000-2010. Or it might be that the 1990s, when temperatures were rising fast, was the anomalous period. Or . . . that the climate is responding to higher concentrations of CO2 in ways that had not been properly understood before.”

Although this “does not mean global warming is a delusion”, the Economist suggested that if temperatures are likely to rise by “only two degrees Celsius” in response to a doubling of CO2 emissions, “perhaps the world should seek to adjust to (rather than stop) the greenhouse gas splurge” by putting more emphasis on adaptation.

Internationally, a rise of two degrees Celcius in average global surface temperatures has been accepted as the upper limit of what would be tolerable. In some parts of the world, notably Africa and among the more vulnerable small-island states, even a two-degree increase is seen as highly dangerous; they would prefer to contain it at 1.5 degrees.

Whether something as complex as the climate can be tweaked in this way is a moot point that will undoubtedly be addressed by more research. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is now working on its Fifth Assessment Report, with publication next year likely to sharpen our focus on the scientific evidence – and the uncertainties.

There is cautious hope that President Obama’s pledge to prioritise climate change during his second term may be a sign that we can expect some of the “rare statesmanship” that Thatcher called for more than 22 years ago – and that this will be reflected in a more conciliatory stance by his usually hard-nosed negotiating team.

According to the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, the discussions in Bonn next week and throughout this year – culminating in a full conference in Warsaw at the end of November – are crucial to preparing the ground for a global agreement in 2015, perhaps based on the architecture of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

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