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Durban dud ensures no global emission cuts for a decade

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After a fortnight of talks, The Durban Climate Change Conference has ended with an agreement that a treaty should be developed in the next three years that – starting from 2020 – would bind all countries to lowering greenhouse emissions. Climate expert Professor Stephan Lewandowsky says that it "...appears that no major global emission cuts are on the horizon until a decade from now" — which may just be too late.



The climate talks in Durban have drawn to a close at around 5AM local time after a marathon all-night session. It is too early to tell what exactly was achieved during these negotiations, although it is clear that the talks were not a complete failure.

Based on preliminary reports, my understanding is that the Kyoto agreement will continue in place, though minus Japan, Russia, New Zealand, and Canada, and that the parties are committed to negotiating a new treaty by 2015. This new treaty is to be put in place by 2020 and it will, for the first time, also include developing countries in legally binding commitments. (There is, however, some ambiguity in the wording of how “legally binding” all this is.) In addition, it appears that future decisions will no longer be based on the scientific advice of the IPCC but instead the process is only to be informed by the science. It remains to be seen whether being “informed” by the science is a meaningful concept.

The bottom-line, then, appears to be that some countries, the EU foremost among them but now fortunately also Australia, will continue to seek cuts to their emissions, whereas the largest emitters (China and the U.S.) will continue to pollute at a growing rate. On balance, it thus appears that no major global emission cuts are on the horizon until a decade from now.

What does this mean?



Let us set aside politics entirely. Let us assume that the leaders who congregated in Durban all had our best interests in mind, and let us just examine the cognitive issues underlying climate change. Politics aside, what kind of thinking drives climate negotiators, and how does this thinking relate to physical reality? Revealingly, at the beginning of the Durban climate talks, U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing stated that there are “essentially an infinite number of pathways” that allow stronger cuts starting in 2020 to “stay below 2 degrees.” In other words, delay doesn’t matter, we can deal with the problem later.

Pershing’s statement betrays a well known but tragic cognitive failure; namely, the failure to understand accumulation processes. This failure, widely shared among most people who are not intimately familiar with dynamical systems, ignores the fact that to stabilize total CO2 in the atmosphere – which is what is required to arrest further warming – we need to eventually reduce emissions to zero (or nearly so).

This is because CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere in the same way as the water level in a bathtub rises while the tap is on. Absent any leakage, the only way to stabilize the water level is to shut off the tap completely. And the longer we delay before starting to turn the tap, the more rapidly we have to close it; if we delay emission cuts to 2020, then the required cuts are around 9% a year (which means every single year from 2020 on). Those cuts may not be technologically achievable. If we started in 2011, we could achieve the same outcome with cuts of only 3.7%, probably well within technological reach.

The apparent failure of climate negotiators to understand the underlying physics is costing all of us dearly.

Collectively, the climate negotiators have been acting like corporate fleet managers who run their cars without oil changes or maintenance, just to improve the bottom line for a year or two. Some twenty years ago, we could have dealt with climate change for the price of an oil change. Ten years ago, the price had gone up and it would have cost us a new engine. Right now, we are in for the cost of a new car. And if we do nothing for another 10 years, our planet may remodel itself with us no longer in the driver’s seat because 9% annual emissions cuts may be unachievable.

There is another cognitive trap into which climate negotiators appear to have fallen, which arises from the same fundamental failure to understand the physics and mathematics of accumulation. This cognitive trap involves the inability to recognize historical responsibilities. Because Western countries have been filling the bathtub for far longer than developing countries, more of the water in the tub is ours, rather than China’s or India’s. Not surprisingly, therefore, those countries expect us to start closing the tap before they shut theirs. However, Western commentators and politicians are often seemingly incapable to understand our historical responsibilities, pointing instead to the fact that China is now emitting more than the U.S. Yes, China now emits more than the U.S., but its total accumulation is less than a third of the American responsibility. And because accumulation is what matters, Australia has a greater historical responsibility than 94% of all other countries in the world. So before we even consider politics, the cognitive challenges of climate change present a bleak picture.

Add politics and vested interests and you get the decision to let our children do the cleaning up and suffering at a far greater price than we were willing to pay.

An extended version of this post with supporting graphs and figures can be found at http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org.





(This article was originally published at The Conversation on 10 December, 2011. Read the original article.)  
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