U.S., Africa are the talk of climate conference

Kivutha Kibwana
The U.N. Climate Change Conference gets under way Monday in Nairobi, Kenya.Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

An annual U.N. climate conference kicked off here Monday, with the United States defending its record and many of the 5,000 delegates mulling a new U.N. report that the continent of Africa is more vulnerable than earlier feared when it comes to warming.

A U.S. negotiator said the Bush administration is doing better lately than some countries in restraining growth of global warming gases, and it isn’t likely to change its stand against mandatory controls.

Among those nations that do accept the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions caps, “with few exceptions you’re seeing those emissions rise again,” Harlan Watson told reporters.

The chief American delegate was defending the U.S. position as an industrial country that rejects Kyoto’s obligatory reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases that scientists blame for global warming.

Others here, meanwhile, sounded a more urgent note about growing perils from climate change.

“We are all gathered this morning on behalf of mankind because we acknowledge that climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats humanity will ever face,” Kenyan Vice President Moody Awori told delegates in an opening speech.

In the next two weeks, the delegates will get a closed-door preview of the latest scientific findings on a warming world, to be published next year in a comprehensive U.N. assessment by the world’s leading climate scientists.

Among more recent results:

  • World temperatures have risen to levels not seen in at least 12,000 years, propelled by rapid warming in the past 30 years, U.S. climate scientists reported in September.
  • NASA reported last month “dramatic” melting of Greenland’s ice mass, at a rate of 41 cubic miles per year, far surpassing the gain of 14 cubic miles per year from snowfall.
  • Britain’s Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research forecast last month that extreme drought could eventually affect one-third of the planet if climate change is not reined in.

Scientists blame the past century’s 1-degree rise in average global temperatures at least in part on the accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — byproducts of power plants, automobiles and other fossil fuel-burning sources.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an annex to the 1992 U.N. climate-change treaty, requires 35 industrialized countries to reduce those emissions by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Here in Nairobi, the Kyoto countries will continue talks on what kind of emissions targets and timetables should follow 2012. But many are waiting to see whether the biggest emitter, the United States, accounting for 21 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, will submit to a mandatory regime of cutbacks. Watson’s words seemed to rule that out.

U.S. take on the numbers
He was asked at a news conference whether reported pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair might have led to a change of attitude in the Bush administration toward Kyoto-style controls.

“I certainly got no indication that there’s any change in our position,” the U.S. negotiator replied, “nor is there likely to be during this presidency.”

Watson cited recent U.N. figures showing that, by one measure, the United States is doing better on greenhouse gases than some countries. “The way the numbers are counted, we’re doing very well,” he said.

That report showed that growth in U.S. emissions in 2000-04 was 1.3 percent, compared with 2.4 percent overall for 41 industrialized nations.

When compared with Kyoto’s 1990 benchmark, however, the picture is different.

Largely because of the shutdown of many eastern European industries in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, emissions of all industrialized countries declined by 3.3 percent between 1990 and 2004, while U.S. emissions grew by almost 16 percent.

Among the Kyoto-obligated countries, Germany’s emissions dropped 17 percent between 1990 and 2004, Britain’s by 14 percent and France’s by almost 1 percent.

Japan, Spain and other Kyoto signatories have registered emissions increases since 1990, but U.N. officials say they can meet their Kyoto targets by 2012 via taxes on carbon-based fuels, energy-efficiency regulations and other steps.

The Bush administration objects to Kyoto-style mandates because, it says, they would hamstring U.S. economic growth and because poorer countries are exempted from the controls.

In counterpoint to this, a British government study released last week predicts the damage from unabated climate change will eventually cost between 5 percent and 20 percent of global gross domestic product each year.

To draw Washington into an international emissions-control regime, a broad “dialogue” was instituted in May involving all treaty countries, including the United States, in talks about ways to confront global warming. Those talks will continue here.

Warning about Africa
On Sunday, the U.N. Environment Program released a report concluding that Africa’s vulnerability to warming was “even more acute” than had been feared, with 70 million people at risk from coastal flooding by 2080, up from 1 million in 1990, and more than a quarter of wildlife habitats under threat.

“Climate change is under way and the international community must respond by offering well targeted assistance to those countries in the frontline which are facing increasing impacts,” said UNEP head Achim Steiner.

An estimated 30 percent of the continent’s coastal infrastructure was at risk, the report said, including seaside settlements in the Gulf of Guinea, Senegal, Gambia and Egypt.

Habitats and ecosystems were threatened by changing weather patterns, it added, and 25 percent to more than 40 percent of species’ habitats could be lost altogether by 2085.

Nearly three-quarters of all Africans — and almost all its poorest people — rely on agriculture for a living, and global warming was also seen having a devastating effect on farming.

Cereal crop yields will drop by up to 5 percent by the 2080s, with subsistence crops also seeing climate-linked falls, the report predicted.

Baglis Osman Elasha, a Sudanese climate change researcher, said her country was already feeling the effects of global warming.

“The gum arabic belt, an economically important crop, has shifted southward below latitude 14 degrees north,” she said.

“The rains, which used to occur from mid-June to the end of August, now start in mid-July until the end of September with important ramifications for agriculture and livelihoods.”