Cold comfort on global warming
Even in the unlikely event that global warming turns out to be a problem, a UN treaty cannot possibly be the way to solve it
The main action at COP-19 was in the committee that is negotiating a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2015, which is to be ratified and go into effect by 2020. This committee met for many hours and far into the early hours of the morning on several days. The disagreements are longstanding, fundamental and intractable.
Progress was so slow that two and perhaps three more week-long sessions will be held before the next climate conference in Lima in December. In addition, a summit of heads of state has been set for September 24 at the UN's headquarters in New York.
There is agreement that setting targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions should follow a bottom-up approach rather than the top-down framework in the Kyoto Protocol. Thus COP-19 agreed that the 194 parties to the UNFCCC should develop their own national plans and submit them by early 2015.
Some process will be developed to review these plans and then decide whether taken together they will be sufficient to avoid catastrophic global warming, which has been defined as a rise of two degrees centigrade or more in the global mean temperature.
It seems almost certain that the national plans will fall short of this goal, as defined and measured by the IPCC. What happens in that case is a mystery.
On the other hand, if the IPCC would admit that their model projections have been disproved by the lack of any warming for the past 16 years, perhaps we could all agree that the goal of avoiding warming of two degrees centigrade has already been achieved.
The 1992 UNFCCC divided the member nations into two categories-developed and developing. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol required that the 37 developed nations undertake mandatory emissions reduction targets and timetables, while the developing nations could undertake voluntary measures and that the developed nations would help pay for these measures. The main reason the US Senate never ratified Kyoto is because China was exempted from the colossally expensive emissions cuts that Vice President Al Gore signed the US up for.
A decade later, this is now an even bigger issue. Chinese emissions are now far above those of the US and the EU and are going to continue to rise rapidly as China builds scores of new coal-fired power plants.
China's emissions have gone up so much that per capita they are now close to the EU's. Yet China continues to insist that the developed economies as listed in 1992 bear a historical responsibility to make the emissions cuts, while China and other emerging economies, such as Brazil and South Korea, continue to develop.
The flaw in China's position is that according to International Energy Agency projections its cumulative emissions will within a couple of decades surpass those of the EU since 1800 and those of the US soon after.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, insists that the 1992 list of developed economies must be adjusted to reflect changing realities. The Chinese delegation said no at every session in Warsaw.
But China and the US are in their different ways no longer the only obstacles to saving the planet from global warming.
The Conservative government in Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Australia's new government announced that it could not send a high-level minister to Warsaw because it would be too busy repealing the country's carbon tax. And Japan announced that as a result of closing its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster, it would not be able to make the emissions reductions required by the Kyoto Protocol.
It may be that Australia, Canada and Japan are blazing a path that other nations may decide to follow as it becomes apparent that the costs of a new climate agreement far outweigh the benefits.
Christiana Figueres, the highly capable and extremely well-connected Costa Rican executive secretary of the UNFCCC, challenged conference participants to keep their feet on the ground but to raise their eyes to the stars.
I have given her advice some thought in the weeks since returning from Warsaw to Washington, but she has not shaken the conclusion I reached when Kyoto was negotiated in 1997: in the unlikely event that global warming turns out to be a problem, a UN treaty cannot possibly be the way to solve it.
Myron Ebell is Director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and Chairman of the Cooler Heads Coalition, which aims to dispel myths about global warming
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