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World Faces a Fight from Behind to Keep Up With Rising Rate of CO2 Emissions

December 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
For 18 years, the U.N. was intent on cutting global emissions to prevent a rise in the earth's average temperature of more than two degrees. But new data shows the earth is on track to reach this point of no return. Gwen Ifill talks to National Journal's Coral Davenport on the implications of rising emissions and temperatures.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: new findings showing the planet is heating up even more quickly than expected. The journal “Nature Climate Change” reports global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3 percent last year, and are expected to rise by nearly as much again this year.

At least part of the reason for the jump, more than 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This latest data, being presented at a climate change summit in Doha, Qatar, this week, suggests nations trying to tackle the problem may already be fighting from behind.

For more on this, I am joined by Coral Davenport, the energy and environment correspondent for “National Journal.”

You read a lot of these reports, Coral. And as you read this one, what struck you as brand-new?

CORAL DAVENPORT, “The National Journal”: What’s new about this report is for the past 18 years, the United Nations climate change process has been working towards one specific goal. And that is cutting carbon emissions before the global average temperature increases by two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

That has been sort of the critical point that we can’t go past. It’s kind of a point of no return.

What this study tells us is that the culmination of the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere and the carbon dioxide that’s projected to come into the atmosphere over the next few years with development from India and China is already so much that it is almost inevitable that we will go past that two-degree — that two-degree critical mark.

We’re pretty much on track at this point now to go past the point that we have all been trying to avoid.

GWEN IFILL: And if we go past it, what happens?

CORAL DAVENPORT: It’s a big point.

The two-degree mark is the point at which the polar ice sheets will melt, leading to rapid sea level rise. It’s also a point at which many areas of the world will no longer be able to grow food.

So, it’s likely that we could see price spikes, food shortages. These are the kinds of things that will set off a lot of other rapid and potentially catastrophic chain reactions.

GWEN IFILL: When we look at that prospect, not a cheery one, is it because we have failed in our efforts to control carbon emissions?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Well, at this point, the answer is probably yes.

GWEN IFILL: Globally, not just here.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Globally. Globally. Globally.

The U.N. climate summit that is taking place in Doha this weekend is the 18th annual such summit. They have been working towards this process…

GWEN IFILL: So, they have been talking about it. Just…

CORAL DAVENPORT: They have been talking about it for 18 years.

And there has been a couple of points at which it looks like there really was going to be an agreement. In 1997, there was the Kyoto protocol. But the U.S. never ratified that. So the U.S. never — the U.S., which was at the time the biggest carbon polluter, never took part in that agreement.

In 2009, there was the Copenhagen agreement. But that wasn’t a legally binding treaty. So, you know, the nations of the world have failed to come together on an agreement to do this.

GWEN IFILL: There are other dates, 2015, 2020. What are their significance?

CORAL DAVENPORT: So, the U.N. process is — what they’re working on right now in Doha is the third time is a charm, trying to go for 2015 for a major legally binding global treaty in which the polluters of the world, the United States, China, India, Brazil, will all commit to domestic emissions cuts at home.

If such a treaty is reached, and if it’s legally binding and very aggressive, that’s a big deal. But it wouldn’t be enforced until 2020. So, that’s another eight years. It’s 2015. And there’s a question as to whether that agreement can be reached. It’s a key date, but then another eight years before even the terms of that treaty would be enacted.

GWEN IFILL: Even the best-case scenario. So, it sounds like the polluters are beating the policy-makers to the punch.

CORAL DAVENPORT: At this point, yes, the carbon emissions are coming out faster than the diplomats can come to an agreement.

GWEN IFILL: As you look at this globally, who is — blame seems like such a complicated idea, but who is more responsible, I guess, for this — these emissions, developing nations or developed nations?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Well, the rest of the world would look unkindly at the United States in this.

Throughout the 20th century, the United States was far and away the largest global — the largest carbon polluter. China and India look at the United States and say, it’s your fault.

Where you are right now, it’s your fault. You grew your economy, but you put all this pollution into the atmosphere. And you didn’t — your Senate wouldn’t ratify this agreement in 1997. You wouldn’t commit to making these cuts.

Now there’s a shift in dynamics. In the 20th century, U.S. carbon emissions are actually slowing down, and these new developing nations, China and India, are growing, and China is now the largest polluter.

But that makes it very difficult for the United States to come into these meetings and tell China and India, you’re the biggest polluter now. You need to cut your emissions.

GWEN IFILL: When they haven’t done the same thing.

Does that mean that these other nations are sitting back and waiting for the U.S. to do something? Is it another one of these standoffs?

CORAL DAVENPORT: It’s kind of like a game of chicken. Both sides say, well, you know, I will commit to something if I see that you are already doing something at home.

China is interesting because they are the world’s largest carbon polluter right now. But the new Chinese parliament is sending a lot of signals that they intend to cut back, that they’re actually going to do — cut back on their carbon emissions. We see them talking about caps on energy intensity, caps on carbon pollution.

They’re still a big polluter, but they are taking action. And right now, ironically, they’re probably taking more action than the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you cover these issues here in Washington. And you have heard, as I have, in the last couple of weeks climate change enthusiasts and even some Obama administration people saying, this is the moment. We can move on this.

What signs do you see that that may happen?

CORAL DAVENPORT: It’s interesting.

I would say that probably the biggest block for some kind of really significant domestic climate change policy in Congress is the fact that a lot of Republicans are very concerned about the idea of signing onto something that could be attacked as an energy tax.

There’s also a lot of Republicans who are skeptical about the idea that climate science is even true, that climate science even exists.

Republicans control the House. You need 60 votes to get something in the Senate. You need 67 votes to get a climate treaty, an international treaty ratified.

GWEN IFILL: But do you see movement coming from the White House to kind of goose this?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Well, it will be very interesting to see what the president does.

He did — President Obama did talk about climate change in his election night speech.


CORAL DAVENPORT: And there are signs that he thinks about this as kind of a legacy issue. He’s someone who cares a lot about his legacy. This would be sort of a decade-, century-long legacy issue that would cement his place, but…

GWEN IFILL: So, we will see — sorry — we will see what we do — what he does next, if anything.

Coral Davenport, “National Journal,” thank you so much.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Thanks for having me.