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Target practice in Copenhagen

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Climate-change skeptics are barking up the wrong smokestack. The shell game being played isn't with the science, it's with the solutions -- specifically, the carbon emissions targets that enlightened world leaders are pledging to meet. That's where the numbers don't add up.

When the Copenhagen climate summit convenes next week, the European nations that have led the crusade against global warming will be able to report that the continent has met the targets for carbon-emission reductions set in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. There may be shoulder dislocations from all the self-congratulatory back-patting.

But the Kyoto targets were well on the way toward being met before they were even established. The targets are based on 1990 emissions levels -- after the Soviet Union and the East Bloc had been fouling the air for years with their antiquated, carbon-spewing heavy industries. When the communist regimes -- and their creaky economies -- collapsed in a heap, emissions from the former Soviet-dominated zone fell by nearly 40 percent. Now they are rising again, but they remain about 35 percent below Kyoto's benchmark 1990 levels.

This post-Soviet industrial meltdown is responsible for most of the progress in reducing carbon emissions that Europe is able to claim. It's not that Europeans have done nothing. Leaving aside the Soviet collapse, they managed to keep emissions relatively constant. By contrast, carbon emissions by Japan -- the proud host of the Kyoto talks -- have increased by nearly 9 percent since then.

The United States, of course, never ratified the Kyoto treaty. Since 1997, carbon emissions here have increased by an estimated 7 percent. In China -- which has now taken over as the world's leading source of atmospheric greenhouse gases -- carbon emissions doubled over the past 12 years. Along with other fast-growing economic powers such as India and Brazil, China took a pass on any limits Kyoto might have wanted to impose.

The bottom line is that since the Kyoto agreement 12 years ago, worldwide carbon emissions have increased by nearly 30 percent.

President Obama, who has decided to attend the Copenhagen summit, plans to offer a 17 percent cut in U.S carbon emissions -- using 2005 levels as a benchmark -- by 2020. Leaving aside for the moment whether this is achievable, politically or technologically, the problem remains that climate change is a global phenomenon. Local action can be rendered meaningless.

China is prepared to offer its first emissions target at Copenhagen, and at first glance it looks impressive: a reduction of 40 to 45 percent in its "carbon intensity" by 2020. But this "intensity" business is a huge caveat, because it refers to carbon emissions relative to the size of the Chinese economy. If the economy grew by 10 percent in a given year and carbon emissions grew "only" 9 percent, that would count as a reduction. Assuming growth continues at current rates, China's carbon emissions could easily increase 40 percent by 2020 -- and Chinese leaders could proclaim they had met their target.

That's a lot of numbers, a lot of assumptions, a lot of scenarios. But even if the Copenhagen summit is wildly successful, the concentration of heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere will continue to rise. This doesn't mean the whole exercise is futile, it just means that Copenhagen won't provide any definitive solution to what so many scientists say is an urgent problem.

It's also true that even if all greenhouse emissions could magically be halted tomorrow, the elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years, according to researchers who study Antarctic ice-core samples -- would take many decades to decline to historical levels.

If the planet is warm now because of human-generated greenhouse gases, it's going to get warmer. If the low-lying Maldives disappear beneath the Indian Ocean because the sea level rises, that will be a disaster. If "extreme" weather events such as major hurricanes do become more frequent, that will increase the potential for catastrophe in coastal cities around the world.

But if there's a longer growing season in the higher latitudes? If cross-polar shipping slashes transportation costs? If winters are milder -- more pleasant, even -- in Chicago, Moscow and Beijing? We may all be in this together, but there are going to be winners and losers. That's something they should talk about in Copenhagen, too.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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