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Third IPCC Report: Compromised on Arrival

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The third installment of this year’s series of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes’ reports is due out Friday. Each successive report becomes more and more politicized, with the upshot that they are less and less valid as scientific pronouncements.

China is the heavy in the effort to water down and distort the findings, since it, along with the US and India, plans to open 562 new coal fired electricity plants by 2012, and it is unwilling to compromise its development objectives. The Energy Bulletin notes that

By 2012, the plants in three key countries – China, India, and the United States – are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.

We’ve noted before that the Kyoto agreement falls short of what is needed, and the participants (with some noteworthy exceptions like Sweden and Britain) are failing to meet their targets.

To give some background: some observers argued that the first IPCC report was conservative, in that it did not use the latest (and more troubling) data on icecap melting. And this understatement appears greater now that the polar melt is progressing even more rapidly than thought. From the BBC:

Arctic ice is melting faster than computer models of climate calculate, according to a group of US researchers.

Since 1979, the Arctic has been losing summer ice at about 9% per decade, but models on average produce a melting rate less than half that figure.

The scientists suggest forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be too cautious….They also calculate that about half, if not more, of the warming observed since 1979 originates in humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases….

This is the third time in the last few months that studies have suggested the IPCC’s latest major global climate analysis, the Fourth Assessment Report, is too conservative.

In December, a German team published research suggesting that sea levels could rise by 50-140cm over the coming century. The IPCC, in February, gave a range of 28-43cm.

Then, also in February, came an analysis showing that temperature and sea level rises had been rising at or above the top end of IPCC projections since the panel’s previous major assessment in 2001….

Because of the way it works, the IPCC is bound to be conservative, as it assesses in considerable depth research already in the public domain. This process takes time, and means the panel’s conclusions will always lag behind the latest publications.

Nevertheless, Marika Holland believes there is agreement on the major questions regarding Arctic ice; it is receding, and greenhouse gases of human origin are largely responsible.

“The fact that all models show ice loss over the observed period and all project large ice losses into the future is a very strong message,” she said.

Without belaboring the details, the Chinese fought hard to weaken the language in the second report, the one that forecast the impact on various regions of the globe (surprisingly, the US opposed the Chinese).

In this third report, the one on economic impact, the Chinese are taking an even tougher position, and have India and Brazil in their camp. There are two issues, one on who is responsible (which implies who should make the greatest sacrifice), the second on the level of cuts necessary to ameliorate climate change.

The India Times addresses the first schism, the blame game:

A demand by China, India and Brazil that rich nations accept they are mainly responsible for global warming has held up progress at a key UN climate change conference here, delegates said Wednesday….

“Brazil, India and China are trying to put on the shoulders of industrialised nations the historic responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, in order to clear their own emissions (of blame) and to protect themselves in any discussion.” ….

But China has also insisted on specific figures, which lay the blame for global warming on rich nations, be inserted into the conclusions, according to documents obtained by AFP.

Developed countries should formally recognise they were responsible for 95% of greenhouse gas emissions from the pre-industrial era to 1950, and for 77% from 1950 to 2000, according to China’s submission to the IPCC.

China also rejected phrasing that places the onus on the entire world to deal with climate change, instead urging the focus to be on rich nations whose per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are far higher than those of the developing world.

Various delegates told AFP the demands, made by China but backed by India, Brazil and other developing countries, were not relevant to this week’s meeting because it was meant to specifically look at ways to mitigate climate change.

“This is not the point of this meeting. We are meant to be looking to the future,” the European delegate who did not want to be named said.

Another sticking point has been China’s insistence that cutting greenhouse gases will cost more to the global economy than the IPCC scientists had estimated, according to the Chinese submission and other sources at the conference….

The Chinese position is disingenuous, to say the least, since developing nations are expected to generate 75% of greenhouse gases in the next 25 years. That’s why they are so keen to look backward rather than forward.

The BBC highlights another disputed issue: the target level for CO2. China is already unhappy with the level recommended in the IPCC report, yet experts say that figure is not low enough:

Environmentalists fear that a key climate report to be published this week is using outdated science, and will lead to dangerous climate change.

Campaigners say the IPCC’s economics report has based its recommendations on the safe limit of atmospheric CO2 being 550 parts per million (ppm).

But more recent scientific studies now put that figure at 450ppm, they argue.

Attempts by the report’s authors to amend the findings to reflect the new data have been resisted by the Chinese….

The draft text of the technical report, which will be used by governments around the world as the basis for national climate policies, concludes that tackling climate change is both achievable and affordable.

But environmental groups say the findings need to be re-evaluated because it is based on the idea that global atmospheric CO2 levels can be stabilised at 550ppm without risking dangerous climate change.

“If governments decided to stabilise at 550ppm, I think we would see dramatic impacts around the world,” said Stephanie Tunmore, a Greenpeace spokeswoman.

“Hundreds of millions more people would be at risk from water shortages, and it looks – from recent evidence – as though we would start to lose the massive ice sheets at the poles, resulting in sea level rises.”

She added that scientists now warn a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is closer to 450ppm.

However, the authors of the economic report are technically unable to take the 450ppm into account because the data set on which they must base their findings uses the 550ppm figure.

Attempts to change the emphasis of the report to reflect the new figures have been angrily resisted by Chinese delegates at the conference.

They argue that any change in emphasis would be unsupported by any economic evidence, and would threaten to undermine the nation’s drive to tackle poverty.

The current trend of China’s emissions would drive global CO2 to much more than 550ppm unless developed nations start making much more radical cuts than they have offered so far.

China is said to be prepared to block any such changes to the report, which is scheduled to be published on Friday.

The Chinese are also negotiating hard to ensure that the document does not imply any necessity for developing nations to tackle climate change.

The original UN agreement, the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change, made it clear that rich nations had to cut emissions first.

China is angry that the US is blaming it for pollution when its per capita emissions are six times higher than China’s, yet the Chinese are manufacturing goods for the rest of the world.

Brazil and India are said to be supportive of the stance adopted by the Chinese on this issue.

But critics of China’s hard-line approach point out that the nation will benefit it agrees to be bound by policies like building efficiency proposed by the Bangkok report.

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