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The promise and shortcomings of Obama’s carbon deal

Posted in Expert Reactions on December 19th, 2009.

UPDATED 10.30AM Sunday Dec 20: Scientists react to the news from Copenhagen this morning that an agreement to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees C has been reached by the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Click here to download the Copenhagen Accord.

Judy Lawrence, Senior Associate, NZ Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University comments:

“It is clear that some movement on climate change only happens at the wire when Leaders engage and after the good work of hundreds of negotiators. We know this but persist with this ineffective model for reaching agreement. While the signals are there, albeit opaque in most respects, it is now up to the countries to amend their targets to reflect the urgency in good faith and trust.

“Those able to help the dialogue at home need to find new ways of engaging with our leaders at the political, industry, science and community levels effectively to build trust and engagement that can arrive at an effective emissions reduction result for NZ. This is a leadership issue and one that affects our economic and social future as a nation.”

cop15Dr Dave Lowe, climate scientist, renewable energy consultant LoweNZ Ltd. comments:“On the one hand I applaud the actions of the 192 governments and their officials who took the time to attend COP15. The fact that some agreements have been reached is encouraging. However the core issue remains that no international binding agreement on carbon emissions reductions with verification procedures has been reached. Without this it is extremely unlikely that the current high growth rate of carbon emissions will be reduced in the near future let alone be reversed.

“The science is clear: without drastic carbon emissions cuts in the next decade 3rd world and island nations face a bleak future. It is imperative that the limited agreements made at COP15 be carried forward immediately and turned into binding agreements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.”

Jonathan Boston, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University comments:

1. Bear in mind that it was ‘noted’, not ‘adopted’ as a COP decision.

2. Andy: I think you are correct that para 5 does represent a breakthrough on verification mechanisms in developing countries — but the language is still full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and the relevant ‘guidelines’ for domestic and international MRV have yet to be agreed. So it is a start, but only a start …

3. Andy: there is no reference to 80% reductions by 2050 in the finally agreed version. Indeed, one of the very disappointing features of the Accord is the failure to even come close to an agreed burden sharing framework between developed and developing countries in relation to emission reductions for 2050 (or earlier), or in relation to peaking of global emissions, etc etc.

4. The agreement in para 4 for developed countries is disturbingly vague: it is very unclear whether countries will adopt their most ambitious targets for 2020 by or at 1 February 2010. The EU has, apparently, not agreed as yet to go to 30%; nor has Australia agreed to go to 25%. I am not sure what, if anything, NZ has said. Presumably there will be 6 weeks of uncertainty and behind the scenes discussions. If what is offered by countries for placement in Appendix 1 by 1 February falls short of the most ambitious current offers on the table, then it will be hard to scale things up when the time comes to agree a new legal instrument(s) whatever form this (these) might take. And even the most ambitious offerings will not put on a clear path for anything close to 2C.

5. It is not clear whether the Accord will help or hinder the Obama administration secure Senate approval for the current legislative initiatives. If the former, then this may help with securing a legally binding outcome at COP16/CMP6 in Mexico — but it will do little to lift the level of global ambition. If the latter (hinder), then this will make a positive outcome in Mexico all the more unlikely.

6. The issue of the form of the legal instrument(s) to be adopted at COP16/CMP6 remains undecided — although the text seems to imply that there will be a second commitment period under KP and a new legally binding instrument. But I doubt that all the parties have agreed to this …

7. The commitment to find $100 billion by 2020 is very vague … Most of the hard issues remain to be sorted. Nor is it clear from the Accord how the $30 billion over 2010-12 will be funded or allocated. As Peter notes, these sums are still tiny by global standards. $30 billion over three years is about 1.5% of the US defence budget over the same period!

But it is a start!

Dr James Renwick, climate scientist at NIWA comments:

“The Copenhagen agreement that has been announced in outline is a very good step in the right direction, and as such should be applauded. The next step is actual action, and buy-in by the rest of the international community.

“Like Martin Manning, I have been at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco the past week. I am filled with inspiration, and foreboding, in equal measure. Inspiration at seeing the legions of smart and committed scientists working on understanding and mitigating the problems, and foreboding at the scale of what we face, and the risks.

“The science of climate change is clear, and stark, and the risks are very great indeed. Evidence from past climates, and changes that are happening right now in the Arctic (thawing of permafrost – a major store of carbon, and melting of ice), show that we are engaged in a very dangerous experiment with the climate system. Climate changes on a scale never experienced by modern human civilisation may be locked in within the next few years, unless we take decisive action. The effects of higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will be felt for centuries, if not millenia.

“While the climate system has “been there before”, 7 billion humans have not. Severe disruptions to global water availability, food production, and economic activity, are very real threats. If global climate changes continue to gather momentum, the “economic crisis” that was tackled so urgently over the past year will seem like a mild practice run.

“So, while what has been announced in Copenhagen is a great step, the real sense of urgency is still missing. Let’s hope it materialises, soon!”

Dr Peter Barrett, Professor of Geology, affiliated with the Antarctic Research Centre and the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington:

“As a scientist I feel despair that the “slow catastrophe” of climate change is yet to be addressed with the seriousness and urgency required by the scientific evidence made widely available over the last two years. But as a human I am still hopeful.

“Although the Copenhagen Accord states..”climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time”, it appears to be a $100 billion problem to be addressed in a measured way, in contrast to last year’s financial crisis, which was an $8 trillion dollar problem that needed addressing urgently.

“Nor has the excess atmospheric carbon emitted over the last century from the use of cheap fossil energy by the developed world and the consequences of climate changed already being felt by the developing world been adequately acknowledged in the proposed solution.

“The huge efforts of all those that worked for an agreement in Copenhagen have to be admired, but after this year of intense negotiations there is still no credible plan for emissions reduction to keep global average temperature below a 2 deg C increase (though even a 1.5 deg C increase will be dangerous for some).

“We now have to ask what more we can do to convince political and business leaders that the future threat from fossil energy is real, imminent and that our legacy does matter. And of course we must take the necessary action. Our failure to do this will make us the first human society to compromise the earth for all future generations.

“The earth itself of course will be fine.”

Associate Professor Euan Mason, School of Forestry at the University of Canterbury comments:

“According to the IPCC, this is a tough target that will require some CO2 sequestration to accompany emission reductions. There is more than twice as much carbon tied up in vegetation as there is in the atmosphere, and planting new forests can pull more from the atmosphere into that reservoir.

“Well done New Zealand for initiating an agreement on research to reduce methane and N2O emissions from pastoral agriculture. As one of the richest nations to have an essentially 3rd world emissions profile (in type, not in amount per capita) this is a really effective way for us to contribute to a long-term solution. It would be good to see more funding for the initiative as it develops.”

From the AusSMC:

Dr John Church is Principle Research Scientist in CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research and Leader of the Sea Level Rise Program at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre:

“Continued failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions commits the World to metres of sea-level rise, with severe consequences for many millions of people and the natural environment.”

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Director of the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland and has been in Copenhagen this week:

“A brave face on total failure. This is a triumph for the fossil fuel lobby.”

More New Zealand feedback:

Visiting Professor, Suzi Kerr, Stanford University, Department of Economics, Senior Fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research comments:

“The agreement on a transparent monitoring mechanism is a relief and a major step forward with respect to some key developing countries. Elinor Ostrom (Winner of the 2009 Nobel prize in economics) has found that to build trust and cooperation without external enforcement, a key prerequisite is that they have credible information about each others’ actions so they can reward and penalize each other. Transparent monitoring is by no means sufficient to successfully address climate change on a global scale but is a critical necessary step.

“The fact that the agreement is not legally binding may not be that critical given that international agreements are essentially unenforceable in any case. It may however weaken the pressure to comply.

“We will need to see the details of the final agreement to understand how this will affect countries’ abilities to make part of their contribution to the climate effort through paying other countries to go beyond their agreed targets. We may need a separate legally binding agreement between countries that will be linked in a common emissions trading system. Trading is critical because it allows us to contribute beyond the opportunities for emissions reductions within New Zealand. As a rich country we should be prepared to be generous in our contribution to the global effort.

“However we don’t want to waste our resources with unnecessarily high cost domestic actions. We won’t be able to achieve the awesome task before us unless we can do it in the smartest most efficient ways possible and that requires that we pay for actions in developing countries. Emissions trading (cap and trade) is the best currently available instrument for achieving the enormous transfers required. The Clean Development Mechanism is not effective because ‘reductions’ are measured relative to an unobservable counterfactual and a large percentage of the apparent reductions are not real. This problem can be avoided if we are trading with countries with verifiable national targets.

“It is too soon to judge the success of the agreement but we need to remember that climate change is the ultimate free rider problem, it is costly and it involves profound distributional issues. Any agreement that involves meaningful verifiable reduction targets from most of the major emitters, builds on the flexibility of the previous agreement and creates a stronger framework for moving forward will be a major achievement. We should not only look at the achievements as a glass half full but remember that without the enormous effort of many people, including many New Zealanders, that glass would still be close to empty.”

Dr Andy Reisinger, Senior Research Fellow – New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington.

“The deal reached in Copenhagen is a crucial breakthrough because it provides for verifiable emissions reductions targets by most of the world’s largest emitters. As such, it is an very important political statement with global implications.

“The devil is in the details though. It is worrying that even those countries that brokered the deal have admitted that the specific emissions targets will not be stringent enough to reach their stated long-term goal, which is to limit global average temperature increases to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. We will have to wait until the final numbers are on table to see how far the actual emissions targets fall short of that ultimate goal, and what amount of warming we might expect more realistically once the dust and celebratory rhetoric has settled.

“It is unclear at this stage what this deal means for New Zealand, because most of the rules by which emissions targets will be set and measured are not clear. The agreement does send clear messages from the world’s largest economies that they take climate change seriously, and that they expect emissions reductions to be subject to international consultation and analysis.

Dr Jim Salinger, climate scientist and honorary researcher University of Auckland comments (from the Cook Islands):

“As I sit in the tropical Pacific I welcome the news that the big players: USA, China, India, Brazil and South Africa have committed to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees C. It is essential that all countries sign on to effective emissions reductions targets of greenhouse gases by 40% at 2020 and 80% by 2080 to prevent disruptive climate change and sea level rise later this century that so threaten peoples such as those in the tropical Pacific.”

Professor Martin Manning, Director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington comments (from San Francisco):

“This week’s American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco has involved thousands of top climate change scientists from around the world and covered much of the current research underlying the issues considered in Copenhagen. The feasibility of keeping global average warming to 2C was not intended to be an issue for this conference, but it has come up in several ways and there is a general feeling that it seems to be beyond what we know how to achieve.

“Coverage of the Copenhagen conference in the US media today has also implied that the 2C target is seen here as being an optimistic goal rather than an international obligation. However, a possible positive perspective has arisen on the research side in San Francisco and this is the potential for new techniques that can actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere at costs that would be reasonable given the seriousness of larger warming.”

Professor Ralph Sims, School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University comments:

Regardless of the non-outcome (though final negotiations are currently still underway, as many of us predicted, getting traction for post-Kyoto targets proved too difficult with US leadership constrained by lack of support through the Senate), New Zealand could still make progress given political will.

(Note, I am closely involved with IPCC and IEA, including writing the renewable energy and agricultural sections in the IPCC 3rd Assessment Report, leading the Energy Supply chapter in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, am currently leading the Integration chapter in the IPCC Special Report on Renewables, and was based at the IEA for nearly 4 years, working on, inter alia, the 450ppm Policy Scenario. So these comments based on that background).

1) The key message from IPCC and IEA for several years is that “we are running out of time”. There is additional empirical evidence for this building up that supports the findings of the various climate models. So at the same time as more R&D is undertaken, NZ also needs to continue to strive to reduce its present emissions.

2) The success in Copenhagen for NZ of the agricultural research consortium is one of the few positive outcomes from COP 15, but let’s put it in perspective.

We have long known agriculture accounts for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 3rd AR, 2001) -(though it seems to be a new revelation for Tim Groser)!

We also have known for a long time that NZ has around half its emissions arising from that source – which is unusual in OECD countries.

We have invested a little public R&D in this area in recent years with input from the farming industry, so the $45M now put on the table is an improvement on that – but it is 10 years too late!

We should not forget that this research could take 20 or 30 years (or longer) before it has any practical impact on methane and nitrous oxide emissions, or, in a worse-case scenario, as with any research, there is no guarantee of success at all.

3) The pattern of public R&D investment shows most OECD countries, (the graph is for IEA member countries including NZ), have not exactly taken energy research seriously since the oil shocks of the 1970s (when in NZ the Liquid Fuels Trust Board and the NZ Energy Research Committee were established to fund major projects). The same applies to greenhouse gas reduction research. Yet we have known about the huge problem for years. To make a difference we need to provide much more RD&D funding than at present. NZers spend around $9bn /yr on energy and wastes much of it. Yet our RDD&D investment is just a very small percentage of this.


4) R&D for carbon dioxide capture and storage, ruminant methane emissions, nitrous oxides from fertilisers etc takes time. Yet many mitigation technologies- energy efficient devices, renewable energy systems etc we have known about for years. They are mature, proven and now simply need wider deployment – in parallel with continuing R&D investments.

5) Deployment of energy efficient and renewable energy technologies to provide heat, transport fuels as well as electricity, provide the co-benefits of energy security, industry developments, employment opportunities, sustainable development, export opportunity and usually savings in costs – as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

6) Renewable energy knows no boundaries. The future hope is that local governments will take a greater lead than national governments. Various organizations (ICLEI for example) had a high profile in Copenhagen but this was not widely reported. (My latest IEA book, launched just before Copenhagen where it was displayed on the IEA stand, “Cities, Towns and Renewable Energy – YIMFY – Yes In My Front Yard!”, exemplifies how this can be achieved in moving towards the new paradigm of distributed energy systems).

7) So in summary, the NZ Copenhagen success for agricultural research support was positive.

But the government could do so much more in the immediate future by encouraging the rapid deployment of mature technologies, and not rest solely on the unknown potential for long-shot technologies still in the research laboratories.

Contributing only 0.03% of greenhouse gases is an irrelevant statistic. On a per capita basis, which is how sharing the planet’s resources should be measured, New Zealand remains one of the highest.

Mr Groser suggested that in the next decade or two he would like developing countries to “bend their annual emissions curve by 15 to 30% down” from the business-as-usual straight line going up. He would be wise to check out New Zealand’s own emission curve first before making such statements. Since 1990 and even after signing the Kyoto Protocol, it is a straight line going up steeply. It is clear why developing countries reacted negatively to such comments in Copenhagen and caused the deadlocks.

How can we expect those in developing countries to reduce their emissions when we cannot get our own curves to bend downwards, knowing that the technologies are already available to make it happen? NZ could lead by example – but it is not.

From the AusSMC:

Professor Tim Flannery, Macquarie University’s Division of Environmental and Life Sciences, comments:

“We’ve made a huge advance at this meeting on a number of fronts, one being those pledged emissions, another being the funding we’ve now got for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. The third is the REDD negotiations, the world’s efforts to protect the tropical rainforests and that seems to be going very well indeed.

“In the absence of any shift in the American target, we are likely to be a few gigatonnes of carbon short of a satisfactory target for 2020. It doesn’t mean we won’t achieve it, but the agreement as it looks as it does at the moment, is good but not perfect.

“We will probably be looking at humanity overall emitting 48 – 50 gigatonnes of carbon in 2020 and we need to be a bit lower than that, around 44 or 45. To get to that lower level you really need a more aggressive reduction target from the US by a couple of percentage points. You’d need China to tighten up its efficiency gains by another five per cent. Hopefully that would be enough to trigger the Europeans coming in with their 30 per cent reduction target. That would put us in a better position in terms of the science.”

Listen to an AusSMC press conference featuring Tim Flannery held at 11am this morning (NZ time) in Copenhagen by clicking here.

From the UK SMC:

Professor Mark Maslin, Director Of The Environment Institute at University College London, said:

“The science tells us that we must drastically cut the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic climate change. But we must also protect the moral and ethical right of countries to develop and achieve the same standard of living as we have in the west.

“Any deal agreed at Copenhagen must achieve these twin goals. If what is agreed is too weak then Copenhagen should be seen as a stepping stone to stronger commitments and a fully legally binding treaty at COP16 next year. As global carbon reductions will be the issue of the twenty-first century and thus Copenhagen is not the end but just a beginning of the mammoth task facing humanity. There is no reason why by the end of this century we cannot achieve a low-carbon world in which global poverty has been eradicated; it just takes the public to support brave and enlightened politicians in their drive for a better world.”

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