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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 industry now.

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 and 1976-2000.
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 those levels.

DO ALL SCIENTISTS AGREE?
No. Reliable long-term records of temperature change are hard to find.
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 effect.
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 cooling effects.
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 global warming.
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 date.

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 member states.

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 carbon "sinks".

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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