Climate picture out of Warsaw looking bleak

Climate picture out of Warsaw looking bleak

It's hard to imagine a worse scenario for action on climate change than what is shaping up in Warsaw, Poland, at the Conference of the Parties (COP19), which runs until Friday. The negotiations have been labelled the "Coal COP" by some because of the refusal of many participating countries, including the host, to back away from coal-generated power, the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. It is particularly disappointing that the Polish government is partnering with the World Coal Association to hold a major coal summit this week while the climate talks are still in session.

Japan announced in Warsaw on Friday that it is rescinding its pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by 25% of 1990 levels by 2020, citing the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis as the reason. The new target for 2020 is 3% above 1990. Hiroshi Minami, Japan's chief climate negotiator, said the new target "is based on zero nuclear power in the future". In fact the government has not yet made a pledge to completely halt its nuclear power programme, although the business of decontaminating the site continues to look increasingly complicated and dangerous (see this week's Spectrum).

Even more damaging to efforts to mitigate the effects of global warning is China's decision to embark on the construction of at least nine large-scale coal-fuelled synthetic natural gas (SNG) plants in northwestern China and Inner Mongolia. According to the journal Nature Climate Change, these plants would emit seven times the greenhouse gases of conventional natural gas plants. The move is apparently being made to clean up the skies around China's megacities which are heavily polluted due to coal-fired power plants. The coal will be transported by rail to SNG plants in the west and the SNG will be brought back to power plants in the heavily populated east, bringing cleaner skies to city dwellers but overall drastically increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile Canada and the US are betting on bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta, a thick, heavy oil that is among the most greenhouse gas-intensive forms of petroleum to produce. Estimates are that tar sands oil contributes from 15% to 100% more greenhouse gases per barrel than conventional oils because of the resources needed to process it. Aren't we supposed to be going the other way?

The Keystone XL Pipeline is being constructed to carry the oil 2,700km from Alberta to refineries in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. US President Barack Obama has sent mixed signals on whether or not he will approve the northern section of the pipeline which must cross an international border, but the southern leg through the US states of Oklahoma and Texas is already more than 95% completed. There is tremendous opposition to the pipeline, and not just because of its implications for global warming _ fears of leaks have lately been exacerbated by reports of shoddy construction. In the end, however, the tremendous profits to be made and the argument for US energy security will probably outweigh environmental concerns.

There is now an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists, and for that matter government officials, that global warming is real and that unless immediate action is taken, the consequences will be devastating. Models predict more "super storms" of the type that hit the Philippines last weekend. On Monday last week, the envoy to the climate meetings in Warsaw from the Philippines, Naderev Yeb Sanos, pleaded with delegates, saying: "If the countries meeting for the COP negotiations in Warsaw have any conscience at all, they will take action immediately to reduce carbon emissions and assist countries like mine which are not responsible for climate change but are suffering the consequences."

As for the last part of Mr Sanos' plea, measures to provide assistance for developing countries that will be hard hit by climate change are now a major part of negotiations and most developed nations have signed on to the idea. However, the chances for pro-active measures and a unified policy to head off global warming coming out of Warsaw or any other climate change venue don't look promising when the two biggest producers of greenhouse gases, China and the US, keep reaching for more instead of less carbon-intensive fuel sources.

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