Jun 6, 2007
World Environment Day focuses on melting ice
The celebration of this year's World Environment Day took place on 5 June in Tromsø, Norway, with the theme of "Melting ice – a hot topic?" While it's designed to tie in with International Polar Year, the subject seems particularly apt given the recent controversies surrounding the effects of ice-sheet retreat on sea-level rise.
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave its consensus projection of the probable extent of sea-level rise as 18–59 cm. While the maximum figure was smaller than that given in the IPCC's third assessment report in 2001, the analysis did not include any effects of ice-sheet melting and rapid dynamical changes in ice flow, which the IPCC said it did not have enough information on to predict.
Writing in Environmental Research Letters, NASA climate scientist James Hansen says that he feels this lowering of the limits of the range could give out the wrong message to the public. While Hansen appreciates the need for scientific reticence in producing a consensus document such as the IPCC report, he has called for a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea-level change issue.
Back to World Environment Day, on which the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a peer-reviewed report on the "Global Outlook for Ice and Snow". According to the document, which builds on the work of the IPCC, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by declines in snow cover, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost and lake ice. Problems are likely to include changes in the availability of water supplies for drinking and agriculture, rising sea levels affecting low-lying coasts and islands, and an increase in hazards such as the subsidence of currently frozen land, avalanches and flooding. The report also flags areas that need further scientific research, including the likely fate of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.
"The report comes in 2007, a year in which climate change came in from the cold in terms of science, likely impacts and costs," said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. "Indeed the IPCC has concluded that the bill may be less than 0.1% of global GDP a year. So overcoming the climate-change challenge is the bargain of the century. The missing link is universal political action." Steiner believes that the report should encourage leaders to act on a fair and forward-looking emissions-reduction deal at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Bali in December.
But for now, all eyes are on the G8 World Economic Summit from 6–8 June in Heiligendamm, Germany, where representatives from the US, Japan, France, the UK, Germany, Canada, Italy, and Russia will gather to debate a range of topics, including action on climate change. There's been extensive build-up before the meeting, with US president George Bush apparently believing that technology, rather than caps on carbon emissions, is the way forward. Bush has proposed a meeting of the 15 largest greenhouse gas emitters in Washington to agree long-term goals for emissions and to share environmental technology. The European Union, on the other hand, is keen to extend and widen the UNFCCC's Kyoto Protocol climate-change commitments beyond 2012. The US has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
"President Bush's so-called plan on climate change is nothing other than an effort to derail the ongoing process under the UNFCCC," said Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, UK, and coordinating lead author of a chapter in the IPCC's fourth assessment report. "All developing countries, including major ones like China, Brazil and India, are deeply engaged in the ongoing, and so far very fruitful, dialogue under the UNFCCC. Bush's idea of initiating new, parallel talks between just a few countries is nothing but an effort to derail the ongoing talks. Developing countries should not fall into his trap of delaying action under a UN framework."
A group of 23 leading banks, insurance and reinsurance companies has also called for the G8 to back deep emission-reduction targets. The statement, from the UNEP Finance Initiative's Climate Change working group, suggests that proposals by the European Union for mandatory emission reductions of 20–30% by 2020 and 60–80% by 2050 should be central to all industrialized country goals.
And with the recent formation of the US Climate Action Partnership indicating that the US business community is more keen for controls on carbon emissions than the president, it will be interesting to see how the talks pan out.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.