Bloomberg News

Greenhouse Gas Gap Grows as Climate Pledges Fall Short

May 24, 2012

THREAT: Global oxygen levels spike when a new kind of photosynthesizing organism takes root. Levels climb high enough that lightning can start uncontrolled fires even in a rainforest. People, animals and other organisms not used to the new gaseous mix are disabled with oxygen poisoning.REALITY: Oxygen is the waste product of microorganisms called cyanobacteria. They still thrive today, as do their cousins, the chloroplasts in plants and trees.The Earth's atmosphere had little oxygen for half its history. Geologists read iron formations in rocks more than 2 billion years old as evidence that a massive shift occurred when oxygen arrived. Microorganisms unable to live with the new gas may have died off in an "oxygen holocaust," as some scientists have argued.Breathe deeply. An overoxygenating critter doesn't exist, and even if it did, the time scale for dramatically changing the percentage of atmospheric oxygen would be in the millions of years. Rising levels of carbon dioxide, not oxygen, are the threat this century.Read more energy & sustainability news. Source: Photograph by NASA

THREAT: Global oxygen levels spike when a new kind of photosynthesizing organism takes root. Levels climb high enough that lightning can start uncontrolled fires even in a rainforest. People, animals and other organisms not used to the new gaseous mix are disabled with oxygen poisoning.

REALITY: Oxygen is the waste product of microorganisms called cyanobacteria. They still thrive today, as do their cousins, the chloroplasts in plants and trees.

The Earth's atmosphere had little oxygen for half its history. Geologists read iron formations in rocks more than 2 billion years old as evidence that a massive shift occurred when oxygen arrived. Microorganisms unable to live with the new gas may have died off in an "oxygen holocaust," as some scientists have argued.

Breathe deeply. An overoxygenating critter doesn't exist, and even if it did, the time scale for dramatically changing the percentage of atmospheric oxygen would be in the millions of years. Rising levels of carbon dioxide, not oxygen, are the threat this century.

Read more energy & sustainability news.

Source: Photograph by NASA

The gap between the emissions cuts needed to contain global warming and actual reductions by 2020 is at risk of widening as countries including the U.S., Brazil and Mexico fail to meet pledges, Climate Action Tracker said.

At best, commitments would lead to emissions 9 gigatons (9 billion tons) higher than the 44 gigatons needed in 2020 to stop the planet warming more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) since industrialization, the project said in Bonn, where two weeks of United Nations talks end tomorrow.

A temperature increase of at least 3.5 degrees Celsius on the current greenhouse-gas trajectory may accelerate because nations are indicating they will miss 2020 pledges, Climate Action Tracker said after analyzing presentations made by countries at the meeting.

“Many governments are nowhere near putting in place the policies they have committed to, policies that are not enough to keep temperature rises to below 2 degrees Celsius,” said Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics, one of three groups that set up the project. “We’ve already identified a major emissions gap. The action being taken is highly unlikely to shrink that gap. It seems that the opposite is happening.”

Pledges Missed

While the project hasn’t in detail quantified how much countries will undershoot existing emissions pledges, Marion Vieweg, an analyst at Climate Analytics, told reporters in Bonn that the emissions gap is likely to be above 11 gigatons with the current rate of progress. That’s equivalent to the current annual emissions of the U.S. and 27-nation European Union combined, according to the group.

The UN discussions have failed to yield any increase in the ambition of emissions reductions, Bangladeshi negotiator Quamrul Chowdhury said today in an interview in Bonn.

The talks are split into three tracks: One to define what nations bound by targets under the existing Kyoto Protocol will do when they expire at the end of 2012; another to define what those without targets will do, including the two biggest emitters, the U.S. and China; and a third strand to devise a new climate treaty by 2015 that will take force from 2020.

The first two tracks are in danger of not being completed at year-end talks in Doha, Qatar, because of UN budgetary constraints may cancel a week of interim negotiations in Bangkok before then, said Chowdhury. The third strand is in deadlock over a procedural debate about how to structure the discussions, pitting 36 countries that include China and India against the rest of negotiators, he said.

Tracker Supporters

Aside from Potsdam, Germany-based Climate Analytics, the tracker project is run by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the consultant Ecofys, which has offices in the U.S., China, Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

The project’s estimate of the “emissions gap” exceeds the low end of the central range of 6 gigatons to 11 gigatons estimated by the UN in November. The UN’s lowest estimate for the gap given the most ambitious pledges and rigorous implementation is for 3 gigatons, according to the tracker.

Niklas Hoehne, director of energy and climate policy at Ecofys, said that the global economic crisis and a switch from coal to gas has driven predicted emissions for the U.S. lower, though policies in the biggest economy are still insufficient to meet its pledges. President Barack Obama has committed to cut U.S. emissions 17 percent for the 15 years through 2020 so long as Congress passes domestic legislation.

Coal and Efficiency

The tracker said policies announced by the U.S. on coal- fired power stations and fuel efficiency in vehicles leave the world’s biggest historical emitter 350 million tons short of its “inadequate” 2020 pledge.

Brazil’s proposed forest code may reverse the trend that’s seen its deforestation rate fall to a historic low, the tracker said. President Dilma Rousseff is due to make a decision on the proposal tomorrow, it said.

Mexico has introduced “solid new framework legislation” on climate change, while failing to implement policies, and is set to achieve only 12 percent of its pledge to cut emissions by 30 percent from a business-as-usual trajectory by 2020, it said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in Bonn at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net


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