Virtually all countries have ratified the Kyoto protocol. Yet, global warming continues and the symptoms are visible everywhere.
Warming trends in a third of the world's large ocean regions are two to four times greater than the average trends reported in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N.-backed environmental study said.
One year ago, a study pointed out that actual data showed that artic ice was already retreating faster than the IPCC's worst-case scenario.
The world's glaciers continue to melt away, with record losses announced in the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report Meltdown in the Mountains.
The situation isn't much better on Antarctica. The article Antarctic ice shelf collapse describes how a huge ice shelf, measuring 5,282 square miles (13,680 square kilometers), has begun to collapse because of rapid climate change on Antarctica. The Wilkins Ice Shelf is located on the southwest Antarctic Peninsula, about 1,000 miles south of South America.
It is one of a string of shelves that have collapsed in the West Antarctic Peninsula in the past thirty years. The Larsen B became the most well-known ice shelf to collapse, disappearing in just over thirty days in 2002.
In the past 50 years, the western Antarctic Peninsula has been warming by 0.9 degree Fahrenheit (0.5 degree Celsius) per decade. In early 2005, some 75% of the 400 mountain glaciers were in retreat on the peninsula.
Glaciers within the much larger west Antarctic Ice sheet are also starting to disappear. In 2005, after evaluation of data from three glaciers, including Pine Island and Thwaites, the conclusion was that they were losing more ice - mainly through the calving of icebergs - than was being replaced by snowfall, the difference between the mass lost and mass replaced being some 60%. The melting of these three glaciers alone was contributing an estimated 0.01 inch (0.24 millimetres) per year to sea level.
Antarctica contains more than 90% of the world's ice and 70% of the freshwater on Earth. Temperatures on the West Antarctic ice sheet appear to rise most rapidly and the disappearance of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone could raise worldwide sea levels by an estimated 20 feet (6.1 meters). In 2001, the IPCC said that collapse of this ice sheet was unlikely during the 21st century. This assessment now seems rather conservative.
The IPCC, as Reuters reports, thought that Antarctica would not contribute at all to sea level rise, and in fact predicted a growth of the big ice sheet that covers much of the continent from enhanced precipitation, resulting from increased evaporation from the oceans due to global warming. However, this has not eventuated. Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2006 concluded that the Antarctic ice sheet is experiencing an annual loss of up to 36 cubic miles of ice, or 152 cubic kilometers, with the bulk of loss occurring in the West Antarctic ice sheet. Ice loss in Antarctica increased by 75% in the last 10 years due to a speed-up in the flow of its glaciers and is now nearly as great as that observed in Greenland, according to a recent study by NASA and two California universities.
How could this have happened?
The evidence indicates that global warming is not slowing down. In part, this is because of the momentum of previous emissions and associated 'positive feedback', such as albedo change, methane release from previously frozen biomass, etc. However, the situation appears to be even worse than the IPCC had predicted. How could all this have happened, if under the Kyoto Protocol developed countries had pledged to reduce their emissions compared to 1990 levels, altogether with 116 million metric tons of carbon emissions?
Firstly, the United States, the world's largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter, has until now refused to ratify Kyoto.
Secondly, China did not have to make reductions under Kyoto and China has experienced rapid economic growth. According to several reports, China in 2006 actually overtook the US as largest emitter, and a new analysis now puts the annual increase in CO2 emissions for China to at least 11% for the period between 2004 and 2010, far more than the IPCC estimates that the region that includes China would see only a 2.5% to 5% annual increase in CO2 emissions for this period. According to this recent analysis, there will be an increase by 2010 of 600 million metric tons of carbon emissions in China over the country's levels in 2000, which adds more than five times as much as the reductions pledged under Kyoto.
Thirdly, emissions are rising even faster than the worst-case estimates by the IPCC, because some emissions were underestimated by the IPCC, e.g. data for international aviation and shipping emissions were grossly underestimated and were not included in the Kyoto protocol at all. Also, the impact of some other emissions was underestimated - according to one study, black carbon has a warming effect in the atmosphere three to four times greater than the IPCC estimated. At the same time, there is growing evidence of a diminished capability of the oceans to absorb CO2.Near-surface ozone has doubled since 1850 due to chemical emissions from vehicles, industrial processes, and the burning of forests, and this could affect vegetation's ability to soak up CO2
from the atmosphere.
So, what is the impact of the Kyoto Protocol and its Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)? If all projects listed under the CDM will be successfully implemented, reductions in future CO2 emissions through 2012 will total about 175 millions tons of carbon, delaying total CO2 emissions by only 6.5 days. In conclusion, the Kyoto protocol isn't going to slow global warming very much.
So, what should be done now?
James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, says in Target CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? that the EU target of 550 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 - the most stringent in the world - was not good enough, as this would cause the world to warm by 6C, rather than the previous estimate of just 3C. Hansen says targets should be slashed to 350 ppm.
Kyoto will end in 2012 and needs to be followed up by an agreement that will result in much more dramatic reductions in emissions. Negotiations focus on what targets countries should commit to, to what extent it should be left up to each place to decide how to reach those targets and what should happen if countries fail to meet their targets. Many believe that a renewed global commitment to reduce emissions should be backed up by trade sanctions against countries that fail to cooperate.
A Framework of FeeBates
While such negotiations take place, why not take the lead by setting out to make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions? That could be done by implementing a framework of feebates, including a 10% fee on gasoline cars that funds local rebates on zero emission vehicles, and a 10% fee on fossil fuel that funds local facilities that produce electricity in clean and safe ways.
As the Environmental Protection Agency's inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2005 shows, well over 80% of US emissions are caused by fossil fuel - the mining of fossil fuel and burning it in power plants and in transportation. So, if we switched to electric vehicles over a period of a dozen years and to electricity produced in clean and safe ways, such as with wind and solar power, this would achieve an 80% cut by 2020.
Will such a shift drive up prices for consumers? Clean and safe ways to produce electricity are already price-competitive, while cost of fossil fuel keeps rising. Sure, not everyone may immediately switch to an electric car, but economies of scale resulting from such policies should - over the timespan of 12 years - make electric cars far cheaper than gasoline cars. Cuts could also be made in agriculture, waste handling and industrial activities such as in the production of concrete, iron and steel. Additional feebates could result in cement that causes far less CO2 emissions. Carbon could actually be incorporated in concrete, while waste could be turned into hydrogen and agrichar, which could be carbon-negative. There could also be a 10% fee on meat, funding vegan-organic meals to be served in restaurants in communities without roads. Of course, each area should decide on such details and monitor and adjust things, say, on an annual basis. Once such a framework of feebates is put in place, market mechanisms can further sort out what works best in each respective area.
So, how much will this cost? Since feebates are budget neutral, little or no government money would be needed to implement this. Government doesn't need to pay subsidies to make this work. In fact, it would help a lot if government stopped the subsidies and the support that it now gives to the oil, coal and car industries. Livestock and feed for livestock are also subsidized with huge amounts of tax money.
There will be little or no cost, in fact we will be far better off financially. Reducing our dependence on oil imports will improve our financial position. Many people will benefit from the creation of numerous jobs in clean and safe ways to produce electricity and in making the electric grid smarter. It could revitalize our car industry. Healthwise, huge improvements could be achieved with such cuts in emissions. Moreover, the alternative would be to continue paying for the rising cost of importing and transporting fuel, and for the cost of mining and dealing with waste, as well as paying the cost to offset and mitigate the damage inflicted on the environment.
Given the obvious benefits, we don't need to await the outcome of post-Kyoto negotiations, but we should start implementing such a framework now. If the rest of the world followed our lead, we wouldn't have to send troops to the Middle East to secure the supply of oil, we wouldn't need to patrol the world to avoid nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists, etc. We can lead the world and - for once - we can help the world, not by giving money to other countries or by sending troops, but by helping ourselves and by setting the example in the process.
updated: May 20, 2008