The most recent global temperature record, released this week, shows the average global temperature fell last year for the second year. There is now general agreement that the rising trend has stalled.
Around Doha, the capital of Qatar, which boasts the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, ramshackle humpies made of car tyres and recycled shipping pallets are springing up amid the city’s shiny skyscrapers.
Doha, which is hosting the latest round of climate talks, has one of the biggest carbon footprints. Source: Getty Images
Together with a fleet of low-cost electric cars to ferry the A-list, the low-cost buildings are the organisers’ eye-popping way to draw attention to the UN’s annual climate change conference that kicks off on Monday.
In keeping with Doha’s immaculately manicured image, the most common expression on eco-friendly portals has been surprise that it was possible to recycle anything in the Arabian sheikdom.
It is a mixed message that illustrates the state of global climate change negotiations. As usual, a raft of reports restating dire predictions has been released to coincide with the conference.
The World Meteorological Organisation confirmed atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had risen to 390.9 parts a million, the highest on record.
A World Bank-commissioned report, Turn Down the Heat, warned that mankind was on track for a 4C warmer world, marked by extreme heatwaves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea-level rise.
The research was undertaken by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and mirrors the warnings of many institutions, including Australia’s Climate Commission. A UN Environment Program report said countries were not doing enough to keep the world from warming 2C above pre-industrial levels.
“Not only are nations failing to close the gap between their actions and the two degrees goal,” says Union of Concerned Scientists director Alden Meyer, “but the gap is actually widening.”
Last month’s Hurricane Sandy, which flooded New York City, has been widely cited as evidence that climate change is about bigger storms, not just higher temperatures. For climate change campaigners this is fortunate because the most recent global temperature record, released this week, shows the average global temperature fell last year for the second year.
The decline is not considered statistically significant – temperatures remain well above the long-term average – and is explained by the strong La Nina weather patterns that caused rain havoc across eastern Australia. But it is nonetheless counter-intuitive to claims that global temperatures are spinning out of control, just as increasing ice cover in Antarctica runs counter to the high level of scientific concern at increased ice melt in the Arctic.
The Antarctic ice growth does not necessarily undermine anxiety about the melting ice in the Arctic, but it does highlight the fact gaps remain in scientific understanding and that climate models don’t always work.
The British Met Bureau was forced to furiously deny reports in Britain last month that the latest temperature data showed global warming stopped 16 years ago.
The bureau argues the trend is still unambiguously up, with global surface temperatures having risen by about 0.8C in the past 140 years. “However, within this record there have been several periods lasting a decade or more during which temperatures have risen very slowly or cooled,” the bureau said. “The current period of reduced warming is not unprecedented and 15-year-long periods are not unusual.”
In short, there is agreement that the rising trend has stalled.
Many scientists accept there are natural processes at work that are not properly factored into the global temperature models.
German environmentalist Fritz Vahrenholt, a former Social Democrat Party senator, founder of wind-energy company REpower and president of the German Wildlife Foundation, has been particularly outspoken.
“According to the IPCC climate models, there should be an increase in global temperature of 0.2C per decade,” he says.
“But if you look at the data series of satellite-based temperature measurements and the data from the British Hadley Centre (HadCRUT), you find that since 1998 there has been no warming; the temperature has remained at a plateau. We know how mainstream climate scientists would answer this question: 15 years is not a climate signal; it must happen for 30 years,” Vahrenholt says, “But there must be an explanation for the unexpected absence of warming.”
Vahrenholt’s answer is that the exclusion of solar activity and decadal oscillations from climate models leads to erroneous results. Vahrenholt’s point is not that climate change shouldn’t be addressed but that fear-driven energy policy works against the interests of nature, the poor and economic good sense. He says there is time to find solutions that work.
This is the background against which governments will meet in Doha to negotiate a globally binding agreement to cut carbon emissions, as agreed at last year’s meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.
First, the developed world must decide what it wants to do about a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.
After linking to the European carbon trading scheme, Australia has agreed to sign up to a Kyoto II, but Japan, Canada, Russia and New Zealand have said they are out.
Australia’s Climate Institute deputy chief executive Erwin Jackson says there are three possible outcomes from Doha.
One is the collapse of talks, with Kyoto II falling over and the Bali Action Plan, where countries pledge carbon cuts, faltering.
Another possibility is that parties simply agree to keep talking.
Jackson says he is mildly confident of a focused outcome in which amendments are made to implement a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and the Bali Action Plan negotiations are closed. Such an outcome would allow talks to be integrated into a single track towards a global legally binding agreement.
The timetable set last year was for details of an agreement to be set by 2015, to take effect from 2020. Key, as always, will be the actions of the US, China and India, each motivated by its own self-interest.
The world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, China, is keen to show good faith to deflect attention from its phenomenal rate of growth and emissions. But despite signing on to negotiations for a global treaty, China remains fiercely protective of preserving the ethic of “differentiated responsibility” between developed and developing countries.
As does India, which remains concerned primarily with achieving energy security as it struggles to lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. India reluctantly agreed to the Cape Town agreement last year because it did not want to be seen as wrecker.
And despite the hype that a post-Sandy Obama administration will restart action on climate change, the biggest challenge may be keeping the US inside the UN framework.
The Obama administration reportedly is considering taking the action away from the annual UN climate summit into the Major Economies Forum, a platform of the world’s largest CO2 emitters.
Such a move would leave the UN process with little more than the symbolism of a Doha humpy.