Climate Independent Media Center:
GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
- FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions -
Global climate change is the single biggest environmental threat
facing the planet. There is much that can be done to stop catastrophic
climate change but decisive action is needed from governments and
IS GLOBAL WARMING REAL?
A report issued earlier this year by a United Nations scientific
body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said
it was very likely that the 1990s were the hottest decade in history
and 1998 the warmest year since reliable records began in 1861.
Global average temperatures in the 20th century rose by 0.6 degree
Celsius plus or minus 0.2 degrees, mostly between the years 1910-1945
Since 1950, according to the IPCC, minimum nighttime air temperatures
over land have increased by 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, and
the average maximum daytime temperatures by 0.1 degree Celsius per
decade. The increase in sea surface temperatures is roughly half
DO ALL SCIENTISTS AGREE?
No. Reliable long-term records of temperature change are hard to
Some critics of the IPCC report say the temperature changes from
the 20th century are within the bounds of normal variability. Others
cite faulty research data, and believe surface temperatures alone
do not provide the best gauge of climate change.
WHAT IS "THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT"?
The greenhouse effect is based on physics models showing that concentrations
of certain gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide,
water vapour and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), help trap the sun's
heat in the Earth's atmosphere. The IPCC has said that all carbon
dioxide emissions, some natural and some caused by mankind's burning
of fossil fuels, are increasing and will heighten the greenhouse
Critics say the correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide and
temperature is unproven.
WILL TEMPERATURES CONTINUE TO RISE?
The IPCC predicts the global average surface temperature will rise
by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius in the period from 1990 to 2100. Those
projections are based on estimated growth in greenhouse gas concentrations
and computer climate models.
However, researchers point out that climate modelling is an inexact
science, since many aspects of weather are not fully understood,
including the impact of clouds, which can have both warming and
Also unclear is the role of ocean currents, as well as the reflective
nature of ground cover, since dark ground cover such as forests
absorbs more of the sun's heat than snow or ice cover, which reflect
it back into space. Critics point to the wide range of temperature
estimates as a sign of the inexactitude of the science, as well
as to probability studies that indicate the temperature change will
likely be at the low end of the range.
ARE OTHER CHANGES EXPECTED?
The IPCC also expects sea levels to rise by 0.09 to 0.88 metres
by 2100, as ice caps and glaciers melt and increasing temperatures
cause water to expand. Rising sea levels will put numerous small
island states at risk and threaten heavily-populated coastal areas.
Incidence of severe weather is expected to rise sharply, making
hurricanes and monsoons more devastating and raising the threat
of heavy flooding.
The change in climate is also expected to hit agricultural production
near the equator as water supplies come under increased strain.
But more northern countries, including the United States, Canada
and Russia, could see farm output rise.
Climate change is also expected to increase the extinction of animal
species as the Earth's biodiversity suffers.
CAN WE PREVENT THE CHANGES?
The Kyoto Protocol is an attempt to rein in human-related carbon
dioxide output, although even supporters of the pact acknowledge
that it will have little impact on climate change, and that carbon
dioxide output might have to fall by as much as 60 percent to stabilise
But proponents say the protocol is a first step toward reducing
pollution and decoupling economic growth from the use of fossil
fuels and moving towards renewable energy sources.
Scientists also say use of natural depositories, or "sinks",
such as forests and farmlands, could at least temporarily store
atmospheric carbon, although the long-term viability of these sinks
remains in question.
Opponents say the treaty is an overly expensive insurance policy
that will damage the international economy, still heavily dependent
upon coal and crude oil, and that renewable energy technology is
not advanced enough to support global needs.
WHAT IS THE KYOTO PROTOCOL?
It is a pact agreed on by governments at a United Nations conference
in Kyoto, Japan 1997 to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted
by developed countries by 5.2 percent of 1990 levels during the
five-year period 2008-2012. Eighty-four countries have signed the
pact and 40 of have ratified it, according to U.N. data. Only one
country which has an emissions target, Romania, has ratified to
IS IT THE FIRST AGREEMENT OF ITS KIND?
Governments originally agreed to tackle climate change at the "Earth
Summit" in Rio in 1992. At that meeting, leaders created the
U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which set a
non-binding goal of stabilising emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.
Although the convention has more than 160 participants, it is widely
considered to have failed to halt a global increase in emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol is the follow-up to that and is the first legally
binding global agreement to cut greenhouse gases.
SO IT'S LEGALLY BINDING?
It is binding once it has been ratified (approved at government
or parliament level) by 55 percent of the signatories representing
55 percent of developed countries' carbon dioxide emissions.
HOW WILL IT BE ENFORCED?
Under a deal made by environment ministers in Bonn, Germany, in
July, if countries emit more gases than allowed under their targets
at the end of 2012, they will be required to make the cuts, and
30 percent more, in the second commitment period which is due to
start in 2013. Ministers rejected the idea of having a financial
penalty. Compliance will be overseen by a special committee.
DOES EVERY COUNTRY HAVE TO REDUCE EMISSIONS BY 5.2 PERCENT?
No, only 39 countries - relatively developed ones - have target
levels for the first five-year commitment period, adhering to the
principle established under the UNFCCC that richer countries should
take the lead. Each country negotiated slightly different targets,
with the United States aiming for a seven percent reduction, Russia
for stabilisation at 1990 levels and Australia allowed an eight
percent increase. The 15 European Union countries took an eight
percent cut and then later shared out the effort differently among
WHAT ARE THESE "GREENHOUSE GASES"?
Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the earth's atmosphere.
The main one is carbon dioxide (CO2), most of which comes from burning
fuel. The protocol also covers methane (CH4), much of which comes
from agriculture and waste dumps, and nitrous oxide (N2O), mostly
a result of fertiliser use. Three industrial gases used in various
applications, such as refrigerants, heat conductors and insulators,
are also included - they are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons
(PFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). One group of greenhouse gases
not included is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), previously used in aerosols
and refrigeration, because these have been banned by a separate
treaty aimed at protecting the ozone layer.
SO EACH COUNTRY HAS TO REDUCE ITS EMISSIONS BY THAT AMOUNT BY
THE 2008-2012 PERIOD? WHAT IF IT CAN'T?
The protocol provides for "flexible mechanisms" - ways
for countries to reach their targets without actually reducing emissions
at home. These include emissions trading - where one country buys
the right to emit from another country which has already reduced
its emissions sufficiently and has "spare" emissions reductions.
Another is the "clean development mechanism" where developed
countries can earn credits to offset against their targets by funding
clean technologies, such as solar power, in poorer countries. Countries
can also claim credits for planting trees that soak up CO2 - so-called
SO IF A COUNTRY EXPLOITED THE FLEXIBLE MECHANISMS IT COULD AVOID
REDUCTING ITS OWN EMISSIONS COMPLETELY?
In theory no. In Bonn, countries agreed that the mechanisms must
be "supplemental to domestic action", reiterating the
text of the Kyoto pact. Countries will have to demonstrate to a
compliance committee that they are achieving significant emissions
cuts at home.
SO WHAT'S LEFT TO DISCUSS IN MARRAKESH?
Most outstanding issues were resolved by ministers in Bonn in July
where, despite the United States' withdrawal from the pact earlier
in the year, the rest of the world decided they would push ahead.
However, Bonn only produced a political agreement and not the detailed
legal texts required to ensure the smooth running of a treaty that
could have a major impact on countries' economies. Those texts are
what must be agreed in Marrakesh.
Some stumbling blocks might be the exact workings of the flexible
mechanisms, including criteria on which countries should be eligible
to use them; details of the compliance regime; and how countries
monitor and report their emissions.
Climate Independent Media Center, 2000.
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