Notes from a Warming World - The Last Shall Be First

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The Last Shall Be First

Although they are among the smallest emitters of greenhouse gases, some of the world’s poorest countries are taking the lead in cutting their CO2 footprints.

At the close of the disappointing international climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, the richer industrialized nations agreed to set self-declared targets for emissions reductions. Then, at the next round of climate talks, in Cancun in 2010, poorer countries agreed to join the wealthier nations and provide nonbinding pledges to reduce their emissions.

The UN published the pledges this spring, and the list is a stark reminder of the injustice of global climate change: Although they have done the least to spur global warming, poorer countries are in the vanguard of efforts to halt it.

Pledges from the some of the biggest emitters were vague and brief. China said it would cut its “carbon intensity” – emissions per unit of economic production – by 40 to 45 percent by 2020. India promised to cut its emission intensity by 20 to 25 percent in the same period.

In comparison, commitments from some of the poorer countries were highly detailed and specific. Ethiopia listed 75 clean energy projects, including building a new rail line that would run on renewable energy. Mongolia said it would erect solar panels in the Gobi desert. Ivory Coast listed a plan for more hydropower and improved forest protection. At least three nations – Costa Rica, Maldives, and Bhutan – said they were on track to be carbon neutral.

And what about the United States, the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases? It pledged to reduce emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But in the discussion following the presentation of pledges, the US fought a proposal (supported by most countries) that emission plans should be comparable under common accounting standards to ensure integrity – a dishonest move that won the Americans a “Fossil Fool Award” from the climate justice campaigners at TckTckTck.

Cloud Cover

The irony of all those climate negotiators jetting around the world – and spewing carbon dioxide – in their ineffectual attempts to reduce emissions has been widely noted by now. Turns out that the biggest impact of global airline traffic might not be the CO2 output, but instead the condensation from high altitude flights.

Contrails – those white lines of vapor left by jets crisscrossing the sky – contribute to the formation of cirrus clouds as the lines break up. And those high altitude clouds end up trapping heat, a lot of heat. According to study published by the journal Nature Climate Change: “Aircraft condensation trails and the clouds that form from them may be causing more warming today than all the aircraft-emitted carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the start of aviation.”

green tinted photo of aircraft contrailsCourtesy Kent Wien

Bad news, for sure. But that conclusion also holds a consolation. While CO2 lingers for decades, the warming effect of contrails dissipates immediately if flights are grounded, as happened after the September 11 attacks and last year’s volcano eruption in Iceland. Also, engineers could develop jet engines that vent water in the form of large ice crystals instead of vapor.

“You can get rid of contrails very quickly,” says study author Ulrike Burkhardt. “You can’t get rid of CO2 quickly.”

Silver Lining

One way to ground air traffic would be to simply crash the economy into the ground. Perhaps not the best idea in terms of economic or social policy – but it would do wonders for greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s one takeaway from a recent report showing that the 2009 global recession sharply reduced the emissions from industrialized nations. According to data submitted to the UN, emissions in Australia, Italy, Spain, France, the United States, and Russia all dropped during the downturn. US emissions went down by 6.6 percent, while emissions in Russia fell 3.2 percent. The US decrease, the Environmental Protection Agency says, was due to “a decrease in economic output resulting in a decrease in energy consumption across all sectors.”

But every silver living has its own grey cloud. In an accounting sleight of hand, the Obama administration plans to use the decline to help meet its emissions reduction commitments to the UN. Talk about hot air.

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