Science vs Politics at the Edge of the North Pole

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By Stephen Leahy

NY-ÅLESUND, Svalbard, Norway, Jun 14 (IPS)

Spectacular views of mountains and glaciers here in the world’s most northerly permanent human settlement contrasted with business and political leaders’ pessimism and concern about the enormous gap between the action on climate that science deems necessary and what politics considers realistic.

“We must push beyond the politically feasible,” said Tora Aasland, Norway’s minister of research and higher education.

SN852503“Here we are at the edge of the North Pole where climate change is easier to see…How do we communicate the urgency of our situation?” Aasland asked several dozen attendees at a recent high-level symposium in Ny-Ålesund, on the western coast of Spitsbergen Island about 1,200 kilometers from the North Pole.

She emphasised that we already know what to do and how to do it, including reducing fossil fuel energy use, improving energy efficiency, and investing in new technologies like carbon capture and storage.

Taking action on climate is imperative and an ambitious international agreement is urgently needed based on what scientists say is required to stabilise the climate system, participants concluded in a final statement. However, the current series of international climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany have bogged down and are on the edge of collapse, several participants noted.

Copenhagen, the site of the final round of climate negotiations this December, “will turn into a blame game” with a weak agreement or complete collapse, predicted Andreas Merkl, director of global initiatives for ClimateWorks, Germany, an international network of philanthropic, technical, and policy advocacy NGOs working to create a low-carbon economy.

“The only way to get a positive result is through strong leadership from (U.S. President Barack) Obama, (German Chancellor Andrea) Merkel and (Chinese Premier) Wen Jiabao,” Merkl told the symposium.

Climate science is clear. Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere must not exceed 450 parts per million to have any chance of keeping global warming below a 2 to 2.4 degrees C increase, said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. CO2 levels are currently 389 parts per million (ppm).
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To achieve climate stabilisation at 2 to 2.4 degrees C means that the industrialised world’s annual growth in emissions of CO2 must peak in 2015 and then decline. The developing world’s emissions growth must also peak but at a later date, around 2020-22, Pachauri said by video from India.

Current rates of emission growth are on course for 1,000 ppm by the end of the century, but even at 550 ppm there is a three to four percent chance of an increase in global average temperatures by a catastrophic six or seven degrees C, noted Pal Prestrud, director of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway.

“Would you get on airplane with a three or four percent chance that it might crash?” Prestrud asked in an interview.

Avoiding the risk of a climate crash won’t be easy, but it can be done, according to a detailed analysis called Project Catalyst that drew on input from 150 experts from over 30 countries.

“To reach the magic number of 450 ppm, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 17 gigatonnes by 2020,” said ClimateWorks’ Merkl, the coordinator of the project

And Project Catalyst details exactly how that can be done through energy efficiency, changes in agriculture, protecting forests, and use of low-carbon energy sources, including technology improvements that haven’t been used yet like improved solar panels.

The cost? About 140 billion dollars a year from 2010 to 2020, with most of that money going to the developing world to help them move to a low-carbon economy and to adapt to climate impacts. That’s only 0.5 percent of global GDP, Merkl noted.

This is three or four more times than previous estimates but it is also the first bottom up, fully detailed realistic estimate of the costs, he told IPS. However, if the cost benefits of improvements in energy efficiency and so on are factored in, then the net cost is zero.

To get a global climate deal there must be agreement that industrialised country emissions must peak by 2015, developing countries following suit between 2022 and 2025, and that more than 100 billion dollars will be transferred from rich countries to the developed world every year so they can implement their low-carbon plans, he concluded.

“If we want to keep emissions at 450 ppm this is what has to happen,” Merkl insisted.

This shows that it could be done – the shift to a low-carbon economy – and it is not really that expensive, said Jorgen Randers, co-author of the classic 1972 book “The Limits to Growth”, former director of the World Wildlife Fund International and a professor at the Norwegian School of Management.

“But we have to do it. I don’t think we will,” Randers said in an interview.

First published as: CLIMATE CHANGE: Science vs Politics at the Edge of the North Pole

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