Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Copenhagen attending what is being billed as a historical climate summit. This is his final dispatch from the negotiations.
One very bright spot at the conference has been the U.S. presence. The U.S. Center was a very popular place for participants to visit, and I think nearly everyone with a camera phone took a picture of the “Science on a Sphere” globe hanging there (see my earlier entry). A few NASA presentations took place there, though I would have preferred to see NASA have an even stronger presence at the conference. However, the attendance of high-level members of our government sent a clear message of the U.S.’ seriousness of intent at the negotiations.
As the conference winds towards its conclusion, and the government ministers arrive, people’s expectations seem to be on the increase, as does the intensity of the demonstrations. Today we heard that the president of the conference had resigned, and that the prime minster of Denmark had taken her place. So will this U.N. summit result in an agreement? There are rumors flying that the answer is yes, with a possible implementation of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation and a curb on emissions, though I suspect the result will be a compromise needing a lot of refinement in the future (like most political agreements).
Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Copenhagen attending what is being billed as a historical climate summit.
Today (Wednesday) was very cold with light snow falling. I headed towards the conference center and was dismayed when the train I was on sailed past the police-lined platform of the conference metro station. We could see demonstrators gathering at the entrance and the Danish police out in force to deal with them. The only way to get to the COP-15 meeting was to go back two stops on the metro and walk from there.
I walked for about a mile in the snow with a delegate from the Middle East who was complaining, wanting to know how could they do this to him, saying that he was going to be too tired for the negotiations, and upset that there wasn’t a bus he could take. I have to say the organization of the traffic to the conference center did leave a lot to be desired. I’ve been to football matches in England where the police have handled the comings and going of tens of thousands of people (not all of whom had good intentions, let’s say), with much greater efficiency.
I ended up waiting in line for a couple of hours (not long by COP-15 standards) with a gentleman from Australia who turned out to be Professor Brendan Mackey from the Australian National University, a terrestrial ecologist. In 2008 he published a report in a book called “Green Carbon: the role of natural forests in carbon storage” in which he presented results that indicate that natural forests take up significantly more carbon from the atmosphere than was previously thought. We knew several people in common and he is a user and a huge fan of NASA’s Earth observation data so we passed the time quite quickly. I invited him to visit us in Pasadena and give us a talk on his work in March 2010.
Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Copenhagen attending what is being billed as a historical climate summit. This is the fifth of his dispatches from the negotiations.
At Oceans Day in Copenhagen we heard about the acidification of the world’s oceans as they absorb carbon dioxide [CO2], how that becomes less efficient as the ocean temperature rises, and the subsequent effects on marine life of all kinds. Coral reefs are especially vulnerable to increased ocean acidity, for example, and several Pacific island and coastal nations raised concerns for their future survival as sea level rises significantly over this century, as it seems likely to do.
We also heard from Dr. Martin Sommerkorn of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) about the methane being released into the Arctic Ocean as it warms — methane being a much more potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas than CO2. Concerns were expressed about the expected date for the final disappearance of summer (permanent, all-year-round) sea ice in the Arctic, as a result of warming in the region, and the potential for that becoming a climate change ‘tipping point’. (Tipping points are climatic changes that could kick start abrupt and potentially irreversible changes on the planet.) Meanwhile outside the WWF’s Arctic Tent, where I saw the presentations, stands a sculpture of the the "Copenhagen ice bear". It started out as a full-blown ice sculpture of a polar bear (see www.panda.org/arctic), and now does not look nearly as cute, which I think drives home the point that climate change will not be pretty.
My overwhelming sense is that people feel powerless with respect to climate change in the ocean, the effects of which are made worse by environmental issues such as overfishing and pollution run-off in coastal areas. The changes in the deep ocean are driven by several things: the increased CO2 in the atmosphere (which causes the sea to become more acidic); the related increase in temperature of the water; and the increased volume of the ocean that increase in temperature causes, along with sea level rise due to melting ice sheets. Some presenters talked about setting up more marine preserves (which are a good idea, similar to national parks), but that would not get to the root of the problem.
Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Copenhagen attending what is being billed as a historical climate summit. This is the fourth of his dispatches from the negotiations.
Managing climate change will involve new levels of policing. In my last entry I talked about the need to police atmospheric (heat-trapping) emissions produced by various industries. But there’s also the challenge of policing deforestation. How do we make sure that countries are actually saving as many trees as they claim?
Earlier this week I attended “Forest Day”, a side event in downtown Copenhagen, where there were some really fascinating talks on deforestation and disturbance, mainly of tropical rainforests. Cutting down tropical forests is responsible for nearly a fifth of mankind’s greenhouse (heat-trapping) gas emissions, because trees (especially old-growth ones) soak up and lock away large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Talk of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) has been a major focus of the negotiations in Copenhagen. Indeed, the U.S. and other leading developed nations have just offered up $3.5 billion as initial funding to protect tropical forests around the world.
My interest in this topic stems from my involvement as Principal Investigator of a project to map the Amazon Basin in 1995, and again in 1996. The work involved using a space satellite equipped with radar instruments to collect data and put together dry season and wet season forest maps.
Much of the discussion and exhibits at Forest Day concerned REDD; the idea being that developing nations are paid by wealthier ones to offset their carbon emissions by preserving forests in a relatively pristine state. But how do we monitor these offsets, and what’s the value of the offset in terms of carbon not released into the atmosphere? How do we stop deforestation spreading to other, nearby areas? My friends at the Woods Hole Research Center have done a lot to develop this concept and turn it into reality if you’d like to learn more. And scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere have just released the first satellite-based estimates of the carbon contained in the world’s tropical forests.
Meanwhile at the main conference venue, the big guns have started to arrive — yesterday I saw Dr. Steven Chu (the U.S. secretary of energy) give a talk. I heard the U.S. Department of Energy under-secretary Kristina Johnson roll out a new program aimed at supplying developing nations with clean energy technology, listened to Jane Lubchenco — the administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — speak at an Oceans Day reception, and sat next to the President Obama’s Senior Science Advisor, John Holdren, at dinner.
Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Copenhagen attending what is being billed as a historical climate summit. This is the third of his dispatches from the negotiations.
On Thursday I sat in on a press conference given by Professors Ray Weiss and Tony Haymet of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The title of their talk was “Trust but Verify: Why Climate Legislation and Carbon-Equivalent Trading Need Atmospheric Emission Verification to Work.” Weiss described his research into some key molecules — CF4 (carbon tetrafluoride), NF3 (nitrogen trifluoride), SF6 (sulfur hexafluoride) and HFC-134 (hydrofluorcarbon-134) — all long-lived gases that can stick around for up to 50,000 years in the upper atmosphere. Their longevity is worrying because we know that they break down the ozone layer that protects us on the surface of the Earth from harmful UV radiation — in other words, they help create the ozone hole. They are also greenhouse gases, because they help to trap heat in the lower atmosphere.
All four of these molecules are controlled under the Montreal Protocol, a treaty that was agreed to in 1989 and that Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N., has called “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” But Weiss’ results show that the concentrations of these gases measured in the atmosphere are far in excess of the numbers reported by the industries that produce them. Why are the numbers off? There are just a few hundred industrial facilities worldwide that release these gases, so counting up their emissions should be fairly straightforward. Weiss and Haymet say that we need some proper bookkeeping of emissions to keep industries in check.
The next day, I listened to a keynote speech given by Professor Paul Crutzen, the Dutch atmospheric chemist who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 for his work on the ozone hole. Crutzen was part of a group of scientists who urged the world to act to control the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) — two families of ozone-damaging chemicals — into the atmosphere. While there is a parallel between CFC and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Crutzen explained, the problem with CO2 is that there are tens of thousands of emission sources — power plants, steel-making facilities, oil refineries, the burning of wood, vegetation (‘biomass’), particularly in tropical regions, and so on. What’s more, the generation of CO2 from these activities is intimately linked to economic growth, which compounds the problem of making sure that emissions are accurately reported. It’s also one of the major reasons why getting the world’s leaders to sign up to a global climate treaty is so difficult.
Dr. Takashi Moriyama of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who was up next, made an interesting point, and one that is obviously close to NASA’s heart. He argues that the only effective way to monitor and attribute CO2 emissions is to use the same vantage point from which scientists watched the evolution of the ozone hole — which means from space.
Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is in Copenhagen attending what is being billed as a historical climate summit. This is the second of his dispatches from the negotiations.
As we get off the train at the COP-15 [Conference of Parties 15] conference center, we are greeted by a gauntlet of activists to pass through, some chanting “Our Future, Our Future”. Others are offering free coffee and a pamphlet, some carrying signs such as “Save the planet – become a vegan”. There are students everywhere in orange T-shirts which have “[Don’t Bracket our Future]” on the back and “How old will you be in 2050?” on the front. I find this last slogan not too uplifting, since I will be well beyond my allotted three score and ten by then. But these kids are spread all through the conference center, and overall the energy they bring to the occasion is quite inspiring.
I attended a side session on Education in the ‘Nils Bohr’ room, which had quite a smattering of orange T-shirts, some on the panel. One group had developed a lego-based game to teach children about carbon emissions — yellow bricks for natural gas, red for coal, blue for nuclear and so on. Others had ideas for eco-friendly classrooms. One young man on the panel, Florent Baarsch, was a past president of a UNESCO group called Education for Sustainable Development. He made a point I resonated with: the environment should be part of the core curriculum for any degree in higher education, whether it be in science, law, engineering, or the humanities.
As I listened to this discussion and looked around the room I found myself asking, “So where will you be in 2050?” Will one of these young activists be seen as this generation’s Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, Thomas Edison, or Nils Bohr? Even a Gandhi or a Mandela? Surely those who step forward to solve some of the tremendously complex scientific and social problems facing us as our climate continues to change will become their heroes. It’s an exciting thought.
Dr. Tony Freeman, Earth science manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has arrived in Copenhagen to attend what is being billed as a historical climate summit. This is the first of his dispatches from the negotiations.
On the way to this much-anticipated U.N. climate conference, my feelings are mixed. In the face of overwhelming evidence of climate change will the nations of the world act decisively? Will Copenhagen come up with the breakthrough approach to global warming most people hope for, or just a step along the road to a solution that everyone expects? Will a treaty on carbon emissions and offsets be forged or will that be deferred to another meeting somewhere down the road? And if there is a treaty, will it be ratified by the governments back home?
The first week of the conference is taken up with technical meetings and position papers from participants: here’s our approach to monitoring carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions; this is how we’ve been able to evaluate carbon offsets in the developing world; this is how reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) would work in our part of the Amazon; translating back and forth between the language used by climate scientists and policy makers; and so on.
In the second week the discussions will advance towards how a solution might be made to work: how cap-and-trade would operate; the terms of a global treaty on emissions and offsets; strategies for emissions control in the developed world; what REDD might mean for a particular region; and balancing between the interests of the nations at different stages of development. Towards the end of the week, the heavy hitters will start to make an appearance — it’s expected that President Obama will make a speech in the last couple of days, and other heads of state will be making their case too. Will they confirm pledges agreed to in the build-up to the closing stages by their staff?
My role at the conference is that of an observer — I don’t get to vote on any of the decisions made at the conference, but I will definitely take the opportunity to learn as much as I can and talk to as many people as possible about the problems ahead. My intent is to let people know what our current capabilities are, and to identify what role we (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech) can play in the future in monitoring climate change and in evaluating how effective measures agreed to at this landmark conference will be.
From what I’ve learned so far, Copenhagen is an appropriate setting for this conference. It has been a trading hub for goods and ideas in eastern and western Europe for just over a thousand years. Denmark has made incredible strides towards becoming one of the greenest nations on Earth, and Copenhagen plans to become the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Its people know in their bones the effect of climate change. The Viking colony in Greenland was decimated by the effects of the “little ice age” in the 14th century and, in the 17th Century, Copenhagen was captured by an invading army from Sweden that crossed on foot over the frozen Oresund strait separating Denmark from Sweden. Denmark is a low-lying country, making it vulnerable to coastal erosion and increased flooding due to sea level rise. If the ice sheet covering Greenland were to melt later this century, as some models suggest may happen, the consequences could be even more severe. And on that cheery note…
Vi ses senere! (Danish for “see you later”)
--Tony Freeman — who did offset the carbon footprint of his air travel to Copenhagen by purchasing carbon credits.