This week has started much like last: with another dire warning that we've done too little too late to curb carbon emissions, and are now looking at global warming of between 4C and 6C by the end of this century, which will be catastrophic. It is twice the degree target UN member countries have been grappling with at previous climate change conferences as they try to limit and then reduce emissions effectively and quickly enough.
So, all those people who were fairly confident that the consequences of failure would not be experienced in their children's lifetimes, now need to reappraise their forecasting.
Today, BOM are forecasting 39C in Brisbane, which would be the hottest December temperature on record.
This time it's the Global Carbon Project delivering the shocking news that global emissions rose by 3 per cent in 2011 and 2.6 this year, despite a relatively weak global economy. And emissions from fossil fuels have reached unprecedented levels, 54 per cent greater than in 1990, the Kyoto Protocol reference year. They are growing three times faster than they did in the 1990s; and 80 per cent of the growth in emissions in 2011 was in China. Dr Pep Canadell, Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project and CSIRO marine and atmospheric research scientist, is one of the authors of the latest report and crunches the key numbers today on the ABC much better that I can.
It's nitty-gritty week for the UN Climate Change COP (Conference of the Parties) in Doha, capital of Qatar in the Gulf. If the conference doesn't produce many results, at least they'll be dripping with irony. Qatar has the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world, largely because of air conditioning and water desalination. Electricity and water are free in this tiny desert nation with 15 per cent of the world's gas reserves, so there's hardly any incentive to cut back on either.
Australia is all set to sign up to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – having not signed up to the first – and confirm its emissions reduction target during the new phase of the agreement from 2013 until 2020. Unfortunately, a Federal minister revealed unintentionally last week that Australia was bringing to the Doha table a reduction target of just 0.5 per cent (of 1990 levels). This is, in fact, consistent with the lowest level of its own projected range of 5-25 per cent (of 2000 levels), but is hardly consistent with the strong international image it wishes to convey – having an example-setting carbon pricing scheme an' all – especially when it's exporting fossil fuels hand over fist to developing economies who aren't signed up to Kyoto. Australia's Climate Change and Energy Efficiency minister, Greg Combet, isn't attending, the team instead being lead by Parliamentary Secretary (Assistant Minister) Mark Dreyfus, who has been present at most of the pre-COP meetings this year so is more than qualified (his press secretary tells me).
(Australia was similarly spineless when it came to the UN vote on the Palestine territories' non-member observer status. Having celebrated its new role on the Security Council, it meekly abstained on this vote along with all the other nations, including the UK and the US, who lack the gumption to stand up to or risk offending Israel, a country that has violated 128 United Nations resolutions. But I digress.)
Most (of the 197) countries are in favour of extending Kyoto into the next phase, although Russia, Canada and Japan have pulled out of the first-round commitment in recent years, and the US and Australia were among others that never joined in the first place. As Australia opts into the second phase, New Zealand will be opting out, thus underlying a fundamental rift that has derailed previous conferences and will doubtless thwart this one: should developing countries, many of them with huge and increasing emissions, be bound by the same emission targets as wealthy nations. China insists it has to continue its economic growth in order to lift millions of its people out of poverty: this time around, New Zealand is not alone in arguing that any new climate pact must include emerging economies. Related to this stumbling block is the issue of how the rich help poor countries with 'climate financing' (the switch to renewables and aid following climate change damage to health, agriculture and their economies in general).
A report, Policy Implication of Warming Permafrost, has been presented to UN delegates at Doha. Scientists have been measuring methane 'leaking' from the Arctic permafrost as it melts, ahead of predictions. Carbon emissions from this phenomenon were not included in either the Kyoto Protocol or certain climate change models because the melt rate was thought to be too slow to be significant. Not any more. And permafrost emissions could ultimately account for 39 per cent of total emissions, according to the report's lead author.
The World Meteorological Society has published its preliminary findings on the State of Global Climate in 2012 (the final report will be released in March 2013). Here are just a handful of interesting snippets:
During the first ten months of 2012, above-average temperatures affected most of the globe’s land surface areas, most notably North America, southern Europe, western and central Russia, and parts of northern Africa. However, cooler-than-average conditions were observed across Alaska and parts of northern and eastern Australia.
Across parts of Australia, maximum temperatures were well-above-average from August onwards. Of particular interest, Evans Head had a maximum temperature of 41.6°C on October 20th, the highest October temperature on record for any coastal New South Wales site. Meanwhile, Birdsville had its earliest spring 40-degree day on record when it reached 40.6°C on September 20th.
After extremely wet years in 2010 and 2011 associated with La Niña, precipitation returned to near-normal over much of Australia in 2012... The April–October precipitation total, nationally, was 31 percent below normal, the 11th lowest on record. Regionally, Western Australia had its third driest April–October on record. A number of sites in the interior of Western Australia and northern South Australia received less than 10 millimetres in the seven-month period. An indicator of the dry conditions was that no rain fell at Alice Springs Airport in the 157 days from April 25th to September 28th, the longest rainless period in the site’s 71-year history.
After having its driest March on record, the United Kingdom had its wettest April and June on record. The wet weather continued through the summer, which turned out to be the nation’s wettest since 1912.
The Arctic reached its lowest sea ice extent in its annual cycle on record on September 16th, 2012 at 3.41 million square kilometers. This value broke the previous record low set on September 18th, 2007 by 18 percent and was 49 percent or nearly 3.3 million square kilometers below the 1979–2000 average minimum... The difference between the maximum Arctic sea ice extent on March 20th, 2012 and the lowest minimum extent on September 16th was 11.83 million square kilometers—the largest seasonal ice extent loss in the 34-year satellite record.
Not directly related to these findings, but of course inexorably linked, is the publication of Tim Flannery's Quarterly Essay, After the Future: Australia's New Extinction Crisis. You can read an extract here. The dramatic collapse of some of Australia's distinctive flora and fauna populations is down to many factors, but a species struggling because of loss of habitat is not going to be helped by serious change in the weather.
Also worthy of note was a Los Angeles Times report of scientists' bafflement and alarm about a coral reef infection on a Hawaiian island that is killing coral and fish. And, closer to home, the sea turned blood red at some of Sydney's famous beaches last week due to an algal bloom that can cause skin irritation and may be linked to a sudden rise in water temperature.
What is encouraging over the last few weeks is an increased coverage and analysis of many climate-change-related issues. Better still, there seem to be fewer climate-change-sceptics phoning into talkback radio stations with the news that climatic change and extreme weather phenomena are nothing new.
But really, unless Doha can deliver, there's precious little to celebrate.