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Climate Community Has More Egg on Face

Trouble notoriously comes in threes, and so it goes for the climate science community and the organizations that have sought to advance action to slow global warming. First came the disclosure of the East  Anglia e-mails, casting doubt on the 1000-year temperature record. Then there was the embarrassing treatment of non-governmental organizations at the ill-organized Copenhagen climate conference. Now there's the discovery of an egregious misstatement about the fate of Himalayan glaciers--not a minor matter--in the IPCCs most recent report, specifically the second volume on impacts.

The error is described in a letter to the editor by J. Graham Cogley of the University of Toronto, which Science magazine posted this week. The panel's Working Group II, in a technical report that was supposed to be based on authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific findings, said that the Himalayan glaciers probably will disappear by 2035 and that their area might shrink from 500,000 square kilometers to 100,000. According to Cogley, the first  statement turns out to be based on a news story that had appeared in New Scientist, "about an unpublished study that neither compares Himalayan glaciers with other rates of recession nor estimates a date for disappearance of Himalayan glaciers"; the indefensible statement has been widely quoted, including by the Intergovernmental Panel's chairman. The second statement (which by the way seems obviously inconsistent with the first) appears to have been taken from a published statement that referred to shrinkage in the year 2350, not 2035.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, winner with Al Gore of the Nobel Peace Prize, regularly issues multi-volume reports that  are meant to represent the carefully honed consensus of hundreds of accredited climate scientists from all over the world. Caught in errors that make its vaunted process look bush league at best, the IPCC has issued a categorical apology, which Roger Pielke Jr has posted on his website. Pielke has blogged about this latest embarrassment, which also has been thoroughly covered in the New York Times and in Andrew Revkin's climate blog.

To get a reaction to the IPCC embarrassment and the larger Himalayan ice issue, I contacted Lonnie Thompson, professor and research scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. Thompson pioneered the study of tropical and subtropical mountain glaciers, starting in Peru in the early 1970s, and he has studied glaciers in every part of the world. Fortuitously, I found Thompson sitting in his office with Yao Tandong, director of the Tibetan Plateau Research Institute, which is based in Beijing and has an outpost in Lhasa.

Thompson points out that the IPCC reports are intrinsically conservative "because every country in the world including Saudi Arabia has to sign off on them." Without belittling the glacier error, he points out that it occurred only in the technical report, not in the executive summary. (But that's an argument that cuts both ways: yes, the authors of the executive summary get credit for not having repeated dubious and unsupported statements; but it's the technical report, after all, that is supposed to be technically bullet-proof.)

What about what's substantively at stake? Billions of Asians depend on rivers fed by the Himalayan glaciers. Thompson says flatly that no credible scientist claims to know what will happen to them, or even how much ice is in them. However, with Yao's assent, he insists on this bottom line: From 1980 to 1995, 90 percent of the Himalayan glaciers retreated, and from 1995 to 2005, 95 percent. And those same patterns are "right in line" with what's also been found in the Alps, Alaska, and South America.

Thompson expresses confidence that the IPCC, in its next round, will make extra sure that all peer-reviewed assertions really are peer-reviewed. He does see an argument for IPCC procedural reform, in that it's a process in which "everybody wants to play an equal part though not everybody is scientifically equal." At the same time, he's alarmed at the constant harassment climate scientists are getting from critics, and fears for the future of the field.

 

Three Cultures of Climate Science

The British physicist and writer C.P. Snow famously distinguished between "the two cultures," the sciences and humanities, deeming the split a major impediment to the solution of social problems. As scientists and the general public grapple with global warming, that split is getting renewed attention--to scientists it seems that the public has trouble grasping what they're saying and acting accordingly, while to the public scientists often come across as high-handed or even authoritarian. There's a lot to be said about all that, but that's not the end of it. Even within science there are subcultures, and members of those subcultures do not always see eye to eye about what's most significant, credible, or--in terms of action--decisive.

Students of climate science conventionally distinguish between three subfields: theory, empiricial work, and modeling. The modelers tend to get the most attention, because they are the ones who assess how sensitive global temperatures have been to greenhouse gases and assert how much warmer the earth will get as concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases increase in the atmosphere.

One effect of that focus on modeling is that people tend to lose sight of the basic theory and its history, starting with the French physicist and mathematician Joseph Fourier--best known to electrical engineers for the Fourier Transform, ubiquitous in signal processing--who discovered the greenhouse effect in the early 19th century. More than a hundred years ago the Swede Svante Arrhenius came up with a credible estimate of how much the earth would warm in reaction to a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the meantime, the warming effect of various gases has been definitively proven in the laboratory.

And that brings us to something else that follows from the focus on modeling. Computer simulations, however elaborate and whatever their horsepower, always are open to claims that something important has been left out, some key parameter has been misestimated, or some critical connection misunderstood. Models always are so complicated that they basically have to be taken on faith by anybody who's not a modeler. For this reason, a lot of scientists and many members of the well-educated public much prefer empirical work, where one can understand at least in principle the scientific basis of claims.

This is why, in the last analysis, the hacked (or allegedly hacked) e-mails to and from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia have been getting so much attention. As scientist John Christy explains in an interview with IEEE Spectrum, East Anglia has played a key role in formulating the recent history of the world's temperature, and if that history has been misrepresented, then a case can be made that recent warming is mainly the result of natural cycles, not emissions from human activity.

The most recent thousand years of climate history have received enormous attention primarily because of Michael Mann's famous hockey-stick graph, which shows a sharp increase in global temperatures in the last century, by comparison with the thousand-year average. It's the authenticity of this graph that is being called into question--not for the first time. The hockey stick graph was reproduced in the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and no double had a big impact on opinion primarily because it is so easy to look at and understand.

But there have always been students of climate science who thought that too much emphasis was being put on the recent history of the climate record, at the expense of the million-year record gleaned primarily from ice cores. The ice drillers have established a lockstep relationship between greenhouse gases and global temperatures, through numerous ice ages and interglacial transitions: when carbon dioxide and methane levels are high, we live in a nice balmy world like today's, and when they're low, we have an ice age. Though it's not crystal clear what's driving what, this much is well established: greenhouse gas levels today are far higher than they're ever been in the last million years, and the difference between pre-industrial and today's levels is greater than the difference was between glacial and interglacial levels.

That's what gives a lot of people pause.

Nissan Gets Into the Electric Vehicle Charging Business

AeroVironment's Nissan-branded 220-volt home chargerNissan doesn't plan to leave buyers of its battery-powered LEAF sedan, which goes on sale in December, to their own devices when it comes to vehicle charging. Nissan will offer a home-charging program to LEAF buyers which will start with an electrician visiting the buyer's home to, among other things, check the quality of their electrical service, according to an announcement this week at the Detroit Auto Show.

Electric vehicle enthusiasts tend to poo-poo the practical and technical challenges posed by home-vehicle charging -- witness the hostile comments to our coverage of concerns voiced by California such as PG&E and Southern California Edison that clusters of EVs could burn out block-level power circuits (see "Speed Bumps Ahead for Electric Vehicle Charging"). But Nissan, like the utilities, is leaving nothing to chance.

The idea is to make sure that infrastructure-induced challenges don't detract from the on-street excitement of driving an EV, according to a Nissan spokesperson quoted in a BNET post from the Detroit show today by New York Times clean-car blogger Jim Motavalli:

“We didn’t want to say, ‘Here’s your car, now you’re on your own."
                -- Mark Perry, a Nissan spokesman handling the Leaf introduction

Motavalli adds that Nissan selected Monrovia, CA-based electric vehicle innovator AeroVironment to handle the program because they offered a rare combination of strong technology and customer service experience. AeroVironment's Nissan-branded 220-volt home chargers will charge a fully-depleted LEAF in 8 hours.

While there is considerable media focus on rapid-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) such as those offered by Project Better Place, most EV charging is likely to occur at home. That's a necessity in the short term given the present dearth of rapid charging stations available to the public, but it may also carry into the future.

Demonstrations by Tokyo Electric Power, for one, show that drivers actually run their EV batteries down further and then retank them more at home if rapid public charging stations are available. Why? Because they are more confident that they can pop in for a recharge in a pinch if they push their batteries too far. Getting home is assured.

Nuclear Groundbreaking

A person responding to my recent skeptical post about the long-awaited nuclear renaissance took issue with my claim that ground has yet to broken for a new reactor in the United States. The counter-claim is that ground has already been broken for new nuclear power plants in Georgia and South Carolina. My reading of the facts is different, but I'm ready to stand corrected if my reading is wrong. The latest news I've seen for the proposed reactors for the Summer site in SC is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted a construction application in August 2008, and that action is still pending. As for the Vogtle site in Georgia, POWER magazine recently reported that while some work has been done at the site involving installation of sensors and the like, final construction approval also is pending for that project.

Perhaps we disagree about what's meant by breaking ground. I take that expression to mean that construction approval is final, a hole is being dug, and contractors are getting ready to pour concrete.

This is not to say that nothing is going on, in the United States or elsewhere in the world. A South Korean consortium has just emerged as the surprise winner in a global competition to build a nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates. An expert panel has advised China's government that Canada's Candu heavy-water reactor may be the best choice to burn alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium; China continues to pursue work on the pebble bed modular reactor concept, though just about everybody else seems to have given up on the PBMR. GE Hitachi and Detroit Edison are teaming up on a project anticipating construction of an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor at the site of the Fermi 2 plant near Detroit.

GE Hitachi and Detroit Edison are teaming up on a project anticipating construction of an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor at the site of the Fermi 2 plant near Detroit.

All that is interesting enough, not to mention the new small reactor concepts mentioned in my previous post. But scattered projects, however innovative or promising,do not make--to use the worst of all nuclear chiches--a critical mass. Ironically, perhaps the best news for nuclear is the accumulating evidence that it's become almost impossible to build a new coal generating plant in the United States. A month ago, for example, it was announced that Florida is cancelling its last planned new coal plant. Though the natural gas industry is still taking ads reminding the public that gas is an excellent substitute for coal, which it is, one may doubt whether gas and wind alone can fill the gap as coal plants are cancelled or decommissioned because of concerns about pollution and climate change.

Britain Reaffirms Big Commitment to Offshore Wind

Six years ago IEEE Spectrum reported about  the British stealing a march on the Danes and Germans, with very ambitious plans for offshore wind energy. Those plans have evolved somewhat more slowly than hoped, but this last week the UK reaffirmed its commitment to offshore wind with refurbished plans that are more ambitious than ever. If technological challenges can be surmounted and adequate financing secured, the additional offshore wind turbines installed in the coming decade will be equivalent to about half the country's total current capacity.

The contracts announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown involve many of Europe's best-known energy companies and contractors, from Sweden's Vattenfall to Germany's Hochtief. Some of them such as Vestas, Siemens, Statkraft, and Statoil have considerable experience working in deep waters, but even so, the program will pose immense challenges. As the New York Times commented in a report, turbine towers are to be anchored and maintained in waters that are deeper, rougher, and further offshore than ever attempted before.

The total cost of installing as much as 32 GW in new offshore wind capacity is estimated at 75-100 billion British pounds--as much as $160 billion. But that may be conservative. Even the highest estimated costs are in the range of $5-6 per installed watt, which appears to be lower than the average global cost of installing wind today, both on land and offshore. Perhaps the estimates assume that with technology advances costs will come down, but that's not to be taken for granted. Costs may actually go up as wind is installed in less and less hospitable surroundings.

The Financial Times worries that the program will not be realized without adequate government guarantees for financing, especially with subsidies for wind scheduled to come down in 2014. But don't underestimate England's experience and resolve. Since 2004 it has installed 700 MW of wind offshore, which is between a third and a half of the global offshore total.

Waiting for the Nuclear Renaissance

The spotlight is on San Antonio, where a consortium led by Toshiba is set to build two new advanced boiling water reactors. Though the project is one of the most advanced in the United States in terms of approvals and planning, the Texas city is holding off on a $400 million bond issuance to support it because of sharply higher projected costs, and the city-owned utility CPS Energy may back out. Since 2007, the estimated construction bill has ballooned from $8.6 billion to $12.1 billion.

The global nuclear industry might take refuge in a declaration of “force majeure”—the standard commercial jargon for forces beyond a supplier’s control—inasmuch as construction costs have climbed generally in recent years and the decline of the dollar has driven up the price of any project that depends heavily on imported goods. In the case of the San Antonio plant, Japanese vendors are to supply up to $3 billion worth of equipment.

But no matter how you slice and dice recent developments, this is not the way things were supposed to be. Taking a cue from the way France churned out a standard reactor in the 1970s and 1980s, containing costs and controversy, the companies hoping to build reactors in the United States have been working for more than a decade on designs that were to be cheaper, safer, more reliable, and above all much easier and faster to build. Precertification of the new designs by  the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was supposed to eliminate the regulatory bottlenecks and local political controversy that had dogged projects in the past. But even after all that work, ground has yet to broken for construction of any new reactor in the United States, and banks are now declaring that they consider such projects too risky to finance without large public subsidies. Meanwhile, the two European reactors under construction--also based on a precertified evolutionary design--have been dogged by delays, new safety concerns, and escalating costs.

Congressional legislation promises up to $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear construction, which may sound like quite a lot, but Energy Secretary Chu has pointed out that this would be enough to secure financing for only two projects at current prices, which  might not be adequate to establish confidence in the new designs. Proposed cap-and-trade legislation that will be up for debate early this year may provide much more, but long-time critics like Congressman Markey of Massachusetts contend that just penalizing carbon emissions ought to give nuclear all the boost it needs. If nuclear can’t compete even when the cost of fossil-generated electricity is systematically driven higher as a matter of national policy,  maybe it is time to give up on nuclear, he suggests.

The inability of the nuclear manufacturers to get off the dime naturally has given heart to critics, who portray reactor technology as no more viable than ever, and not a suitable or effective means of achieving carbon reductions. Some of the leading U.S. environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund have quietly or implicitly adopted a pro-nuclear position. (Several years ago Environmental Defense’s chief executive played a key role in brokering a deal that killed a Texas plan to vastly expand coal generation, and when the dust settled, it came to be understood that instead the state would rely much more heavily on nuclear power.) But many organizations that have been steadfastly opposed to nuclear—Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Physicians for Social Responsibility—remain firmly opposed. At the Copenhagen climate conference last month, these forces were much in evidence, along with an ad hoc umbrella organization, Don’t Nuke the Climate.

What is one to make of this? Even if you ardently believe that sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are urgently required, and you recognize that nuclear energy represents in principle a scalable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuel combustion, you have to admit that the critics have a point. Nuclear is scalable only if in fact the industry can deliver a reliable product quickly and efficiently. But even if all controversy were to evaporate, all the regulatory lights turned green, and costs came down, representatives of the U.S. industry admit that they now are in a position to initiate no more than two or three reactor construction projects per year. At that rate, they might be only replacing the aging reactors being decommissioned, without offering an alternative to current coal generation.

Maybe the supposedly streamlined designs for the traditional big reactor will turn out to be not the answer after all. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists a handful of innovative designs for reactors that are much smaller and could be significantly safer than the boiling water and pressurized water reactors that have  dominated the world market since 1973. Perhaps this is what we need--revolutionary innovation rather than just evolutionary advance. 

The Copenhagen Accord

Having returned from Copenhagen, rested, and taken a little time to digest the two-page statement of principles the Copenhagen climate conference adopted at the very last minute, I'm going to climb way out on a limb with two claims about it and the process that led to it: The admittedly anti-climatic Copenhagen Accord (available on the UNFCCC website) is better than it may look at first glance; and the undeniably chaotic process that accompanied its negotiation and adoption was not as bad as reported. Though the conference organizers did a terrible job of handling the non-governmental organizations that represent the natural constituency for a strong climate agreement, they pushed negotiators hard to come up with something meaningful and may have contributed at least one crucial idea.

The Copenhagen Accord opens with a statement that climate change is to be combatted on the basis of "common but differentiated responsibilities"—the accepted formula for accommodating developing countries that are not yet ready to commit to a program of greenhouse gas reductions—"recognizing the scientific view that the increase in global temperature [in this century] should be below 2 degrees Celsius."

The next paragraph says, more specifically, that the nations of the world "should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries." Successive paragraphs call for a global climate adaptation program, with emphasis on the least developed countries, island states, and Africa, and mitigation aid for such countries coming to $100 billion a year by 2020. Countries classified in the Kyoto Protocol as Annex 1 (those required to make emissions reductions) are to submit 2020 targets to the climate secretariat by the end of January next year. Non-Annex-1 countries (those not required as yet to make emissions reductions) are to submit statements of what mitigation actions they propose to take.

The notion of peaking that is enunciated prominently in the accord's key second paragragh first came to my attention in a talk given at Columbia University early in the fall by Denmark's Connie Hedegaard, the conference chair. She said that even if fast-developing countries like China, India, and Brazil are not ready to commit to a schedule of emissions reductions, they should at least say when they expect and plan for their emissions to peak. Though she came under a lot of fire from developing countries at Copenhagen and got bad press, only to be replaced by Denmark's prime minister in the middle of the second week when push was coming to shove, Hedegaard may have contributed the idea that enabled China and the United States to bridge their radical differences—the U.S. demand that China commit to reductions, and China's for sharper U.S. reductions and generous aid for low-carbon technology. The implicit idea behind the appendix to the accord, in which advanced industrial countries have to state (and, by implication, be ready to defend) emissions targets and developing countries state (and defend) mitigation strategies, is that everybody will be required to say when their emissions will peak and then start declining.

Of course that is a far cry from what climate intellectuals and activists around the world had hoped for. But it may be the most that could reasonably be expected.

Perhaps the most stirring event to take place in Copenhagen during the two week conference was a downtown church service, with celebrities like South Africa's Bishop Tutu and climate activist Bill McKibbon participating. McKibbon has become closely associated with a global grassroots crusade called 350.org, which seeks to mobilize the world around the idea of reducing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (versus 390 today and 270 pre-industrial); at the end of the service, the church bells tolled 350 times. Needless to say, what comes out of the Copenhagen Accord even on the most optimistic estimates will come nowhere close to getting us back to 350, and only if everybody joins in its implementation in the most sincere spirit will it keep us below 450--roughly the level scientists say is required to prevent this century's temperature rise from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Following release of the agreement, the Huffington Post published reactions from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and McKibbon denouncing the Copenhagen outcome. Greenpeace called Copenhagen "a crime scene," while Friends of the Earth said the accord was "a sham."  

The New York Times, in an excellent wrap-up written by two correspondents with contributions from four other reporters, characterized the agreement as a "grudging accord," and so it is. Nobody is satisfied with it. But consider the obstacles: the United States came in facing a world hostile because, for ten years, it has done so little to reduce its emissions and resentful that the Johnnie-Come-Lately now want to seize leadership and set conditions; the whole industrial world encountered the wrath of the developing nations, which suddenly have taken to blaming all their intractable problems on climate change; China and India knew they would come under huge pressure from the United States, Europe, and Japan to make emissions reduction pledges that they feel unready for. None of these differences could be immediately reconciled without some country's leadership being accused by its constituents of giving in to extortionist demands from somebody else.

Under the circumstances it was perhaps a clever ploy that Obama made a big deal out of emissions verification by countries like China. Naturally China was insulted and so there was a big fuss. The more that fuss goes on the less attention will be  paid to the costly and risky compromises the countries will have to make on really serious issues to move forward.

As for the mistreatment the NGOs suffered, it didn't feel as bad as it sounded. As I stood in line with a handful of people I got to know rather well in five or six hours, it became apparent that even though some had come half-way around the world to do something that they now couldn't get into the convention hall to do, most didn't really care all that much. (If they had, there would have been a riot.) If you were there, by definition you cared about climate, and the real reason you were there was simply that you wanted to be.

Copenhagen and the UN's NGO Problem

During the Copenhagen climate conference a local newspaper, the Copenhagen Post, has been putting out a surprisingly good daily newspaper devoted to the meeting, The COP15 Post. Yesterday, December 1, its lead story had the headline, NGO Fury Directed at COP15 Organisers. It described the difficulties accredited NGOs have had in getting access to the conference center, and an open letter 50 of them addressed to Yvo de Boer protesting the treatment they were getting. The well-regarded de Boer is executive secretary of the secretariat, based in Bonn, Germany, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, or, as it's more popularly known, the Rio treaty).

That brought to mind not only the difficulties I personally had getting into the conference center this week but also problems I ran into immediately with the UNFCCC's secretariat when I tried to obtain press accreditation as IEEE Spectrum magazine's editor for energy and the environment. When proper press credentials failed to arrive on request, and I sent an e-mail message of inquiry, the secretariat told me that they did not issue press credentials to publications of "non-governmental organizations" and only accredited press organizations somehow recognized by member governments.

It sounded positively Soviet! The United Nations does not recognize independent press organizations and only accredits government-approved press??

When I calmed down a little, a respected colleague suggested to me that perhaps what the UNFCCC secretariat meant to be saying was that they did not recognize publications of professional or membership organizations, or of non-governmental institutions. This sounded plausible, and so I sent another message to the secretariat, asking whether it was indeed the case that they accredited--say--Rupert Murdoch's publications but not the AAAS's Science magazine, MIT's Technology Review, or IEEE's Spectrum. That query went unanswered.

On closer reading of the secretariat's mail to me, as my colleague pointed out, it seemed that perhaps I could get admitted to the conference as part of an NGO delegation, though that meant I would not have proper press credentials and would not be admitted to press-only events So, rather than keep harping on the press issue,  I instead obtained accreditation as a member of an NGO group--a Dutch one as it happened--and went to Copenhagen planning to participate in a couple of Holland Climate House panels. That said and done, I couldn't help but wonder whether, when I arrived, I would find reporters working for magazines like Science or National Geographic, a membership publication of the National Geographic Society, working with press credentials after all, contrary to the UNFCCC's supposed principles.

When I finally arrived at Holland Climate House at 6 pm on Tuesday this week, after being turned away my first day by the conference and having had to stand in line for seven hours the second day to get in, I found my Dutch host being interviewed right at that very moment by a press-accredited reporter for National Geographic magazine.

So does the UNFCCC have some kind of problem in how it handles non-governmental organizations? It sure seems to. But don't ask me what exactly the problem is. I frankly have no idea.

Copenhagen Crunch

For a window into the climate conference in its critical last 48 hours, go to oneclimate.net's Copenhagen Live 24/7--Your Pass to the UN Conference, which is broadcasting the proceedings but also comment and commentary. The UN's own official webcasts of the conference show everything that official participants say in public, but bear in mind that nobody is seeing the really important conversations and negotiations taking place in private.

And speaking of passes, for video showing a clash between Danish police and would-be frustrated conference participants, along with a sound account of what led to thousands of accredited participants getting turned back at the conference center's doors, go to the New York Times's Dot Earth blog.

Having been turned away on Monday this week myself, I found myself standing in line for seven hours the next day next to a young woman who has worked on climate issues in the White House who had waited at the very front of the line on Monday for nine hours without being able to get in.

There were people in the line who had come from half-way around the world, spending 48 hours on planes and in airports, who now found access to the convention denied, even though their accreditation documents were perfectly in order.

Only those who are members of state delegations or who have press credentials get right in. I personally had to obtain accreditation not as press but as an NGO member, but that's another story. . . .

Kyoto and Copenhagen

As I sat waiting for climate point man John Kerry to begin his talk yesterday, a member of the Swiss delegation to the Copenhagen climate talks reminded me of something very basic: even as negotiators frantically try to reach agreement on a new framework to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, parties are negotiating in parallel reduction targets for the second Kyoto implementation period, roughly 2012-20. The first phase of Kyoto called on the industrial countries--the so-called Annex ! countries--to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent by 2012 by comparison with 1990. Except for the United States, which declined to ratify Kyoto and has been saying here in Copenhagen that it will not "do Kyoto" in any way, shape or form, all the advanced industrial countries have at least promised to cut emissions in line with Kyoto targets.

There are now two possibilities, as the Swiss woman explained. Kyoto will be retained--the overwhelming preference by the way of the Group of 77 developing countries--and new reduction targets will be adopted for 2020 in light of what the United States and major non-annex 1 countries like China and India agree to do in parallel. Or Kyoto will be ditched, as such, and Kyoto-like commitments will be folded into a new framework agreement . The poorest developing countries much prefer to keep Kyoto so as to retain their non-Annex 1 status, and unless the United States brings something substantial to the table in the next 48 hours, the rest of the world may end up coming around to their position.

Remember: under Kyoto, which the United States not only signed but virtually wrote, it was to cut its emissions by 7 percent by 2012 versus 1990. Instead, by 2005 its emissions were about 17 percent higher than they were in 1990. So when Obama promises to now cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020, he's only promising to get us back to 1990--in other words, to the point where Americans were supposed to start cutting their emissions in 1997, twelve years ago.

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