Weaker Kyoto Protocol Extended at International Climate Negotiations

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After weeks of deliberation among representatives of nearly 200 countries, the United Nations climate talks ended with an agreement to extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol. The only global agreement in place to curb greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations, it was set to expire at the end of this year. The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol still leaves off the world’s two largest emitters—the United States and China—and covers no more than 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

In addition, the package adopted at Doha includes assurances to address “loss and damage” at the next conference in Warsaw, where richer nations may be financially responsible to poorer nations for failure to reduce emissions. There was also confirmation of a decision made at last year’s U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to work toward adopting a universal climate change agreement by 2015. The extension of the Kyoto Protocol keeps existing climate targets until this new international agreement takes effect in 2020. This agreement would set emissions goals for all nations, whereas the Kyoto Protocol extension establishes emissions cuts for only a handful of industrialized nations, which include Switzerland, Australia and the European Union.

While the U.S. did join in backing the establishment of the universal treaty, several former U.S. presidential aides and advisors say the country’s involvement hinges on President Barack Obama’s willingness to talk about the issue of climate change. “President Obama needs to talk about climate change and help the American public connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change, our energy policy and the progress we are already making on reducing emissions,” said Congressman Edward Markey. “The public will be more accepting of an international climate deal if they understand what we are already doing” to fight global warming.

The outcome of the conference was widely criticized, but some offered glimpses of hope. Michael Jacobs of The Guardian called the talks a start, but noted that 2015—the deadline for negotiating the successor to Kyoto—“will be the moment of truth.” Mother Jones, meanwhile, offered a fairly pessimistic assessment of the talks, but called the extension of Kyoto “something”—even though it doesn’t include the U.S., China or India. China and the U.S. are to be a clear focus next year, others said. And Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action described the outcome as crossing “the bridge from the old climate regime to the new system. We are now on our way to the 2015 global deal … Very intense negotiations lie ahead of us. What we need now is more ambition and speed.”

Arctic Report Card Shows Record Lows

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) again released its annual Arctic Report Card, summarizing the latest scientific observations about the region. Of note: 2012’s record ice loss follows a fairly unremarkable year temperature-wise—relative to the previous decade. The report also found that this year’s summertime sea ice pack was the smallest ever seen, and a new record low June snow cover extent was set.

The melting of ice, it seems, is also affecting the food chain—specifically through the creation of phytoplankton, which is experiencing increasing blooms on land and in open water as ice melts. The report suggests that previous estimates of phytoplankton production may have been ten times lower.

NOAA’s report findings come just days after the release of another study showing increased melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. It found smoke from Arctic wildfires may have contributed to this melting.

Major Brands Focus on Sustainability

With climate and energy policy close to dormant in Congress, a new study finds the majority of the world’s largest companies aren’t waiting on governments to lower emissions and shift to clean energy. Many—approximately 56 percent of Fortune 100 and Global 100 companies—are investing in renewable energy and emission reduction. This comes on the heels of a new list from Climate Counts, which ranks 145 companies’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. Rankings were based on 16 criteria and included support of progress on climate legislation as well as their ability to communicate their efforts to reduce emissions to consumers.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Sandy Surfaces, Kyoto at Stake in U.N. Climate Talks

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Thousands have converged for a two-week meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Running through Dec. 7, the U.N. conference brings together environmental minds across the world to work toward a legally binding agreement on climate change. At stake: the Kyoto Protocol. Last week, the World Bank issued a report suggesting that a temperature rise of  more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 could cause widespread crop failures, malnutrition and significant sea-level rise. Kyoto is the only global agreement to cut greenhouse emissions, and it is set to expire at the end of this year. In The Washington Post, Brad Plumer shows what Kyoto has (and has not) achieved, and what any new agreement must achieve in order to avoid 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming.

The world is watching to see whether details for a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which lays the groundwork for a new global treaty, can be agreed upon. A second phase of Kyoto, Nature reports, would only temporarily replace the original agreement. That’s why some hope COP 18 climate negotiators commit to signing a new treaty by 2015, to take effect by 2020—or possibly earlier if some countries pushing for more ambitious action get their way.

Counterparts from European and vulnerable nation delegations routinely criticize the U.S. as the major reason these negotiations lack ambition. Experts say China and the United States aren’t keeping pace with the smaller countries—the global leaders in generating power from clean sources. Still, some are cautiously optimistic the U.S. will be more than a bystander during talks in light of the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Studies Coming out of Doha

A number of new studies informing decisions during COP 18 are being shared at the conference by organizations across the world. Among the highlights:

Permafrost: The United Nations Environment Program released a report recommending that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) address the gases emitted from melting permafrost, which could account for almost 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change: A report by the World Meteorological Organization stated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere reached record highs in 2011, indicating “climate change is taking place before our eyes.”

Blue Carbon: Destruction of coastal habitats may release as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, 10 times higher than previously reported. A new report by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions looks at how this blue carbon—stored in sediment layers below mangroves sea grasses and salt marshes—might be addressed within existing UNFCCC mechanisms.

Sea-Level Rise: Another report says sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than the United Nations originally predicted.

Criminal Charges Bar BP from New Contracts

BP appeared in court this week to answer to charges brought over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At a brief arraignment hearing before a federal judge in New Orleans, BP’s lawyer said the company’s board authorized entering a not guilty plea as a procedural matter, but the company still intends to plead guilty later.

On Nov. 15, the company announced that it would plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and other charges and agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve a federal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11. As a result of those criminal charges, the company and its affiliates were recently suspended from new contracts with the U.S. government for a “lack of business integrity.” The temporary suspension won’t affect current contracts, but it was unclear what new or pending contracts were affected. “Federal executive branch agencies take these actions to ensure the integrity of federal programs by conducting business only with responsible individuals or companies. Suspensions are a standard practice when a responsibility question is raised by action in a criminal case,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.