What do scientists think of the Copenhagen Accord?

By Peter Griffin 19/12/2009

Scientists have today expressed everything from disgust to cautious optimism at the agreement cobbled together late in the night in Copenhagen.

We wrapped up comment from a large number of scientists on the Science Media Centre website – here are a few samples:

Dr Peter Barrett, Professor of Geology, affiliated with the Antarctic Research Centre and the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington:

’As a scientist I feel despair that the ’slow catastrophe’ of climate change is yet to be addressed with the seriousness and urgency required by the scientific evidence made widely available over the last two years. But as a human I am still hopeful.

’Although the Copenhagen Accord states..’climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time’, it appears to be a $100 billion problem to be addressed in a measured way, in contrast to last year’s financial crisis, which was an $8 trillion dollar problem that needed addressing urgently.

’Nor has the excess atmospheric carbon emitted over the last century from the use of cheap fossil energy by the developed world and the consequences of climate changed already being felt by the developing world been adequately acknowledged in the proposed solution.

’The huge efforts of all those that worked for an agreement in Copenhagen have to be admired, but after this year of intense negotiations there is still no credible plan for emissions reduction to keep global average temperature below a 2 deg C increase (though even a 1.5 deg C increase will be dangerous for some).

’We now have to ask what more we can do to convince political and business leaders that the future threat from fossil energy is real, imminent and that our legacy does matter. And of course we must take the necessary action. Our failure to do this will make us the first human society to compromise the earth for all future generations.

’The earth itself of course will be fine.’

Dr John Church is Principle Research Scientist in CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research and Leader of the Sea Level Rise Program at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre:

’Continued failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions commits the World to metres of sea-level rise, with severe consequences for many millions of people and the natural environment.’

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Director of the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland and has been in Copenhagen this week:

’A brave face on total failure. This is a triumph for the fossil fuel lobby.’

More New Zealand feedback:

Visiting Professor, Suzi Kerr, Stanford University, Department of Economics, Senior Fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research comments:

’The agreement on a transparent monitoring mechanism is a relief and a major step forward with respect to some key developing countries. Elinor Ostrom (Winner of the 2009 Nobel prize in economics) has found that to build trust and cooperation without external enforcement, a key prerequisite is that they have credible information about each others’ actions so they can reward and penalize each other. Transparent monitoring is by no means sufficient to successfully address climate change on a global scale but is a critical necessary step.

’The fact that the agreement is not legally binding may not be that critical given that international agreements are essentially unenforceable in any case. It may however weaken the pressure to comply.

’We will need to see the details of the final agreement to understand how this will affect countries’ abilities to make part of their contribution to the climate effort through paying other countries to go beyond their agreed targets. We may need a separate legally binding agreement between countries that will be linked in a common emissions trading system. Trading is critical because it allows us to contribute beyond the opportunities for emissions reductions within New Zealand. As a rich country we should be prepared to be generous in our contribution to the global effort.

’However we don’t want to waste our resources with unnecessarily high cost domestic actions. We won’t be able to achieve the awesome task before us unless we can do it in the smartest most efficient ways possible and that requires that we pay for actions in developing countries. Emissions trading (cap and trade) is the best currently available instrument for achieving the enormous transfers required. The Clean Development Mechanism is not effective because ‘reductions’ are measured relative to an unobservable counterfactual and a large percentage of the apparent reductions are not real. This problem can be avoided if we are trading with countries with verifiable national targets.

’It is too soon to judge the success of the agreement but we need to remember that climate change is the ultimate free rider problem, it is costly and it involves profound distributional issues. Any agreement that involves meaningful verifiable reduction targets from most of the major emitters, builds on the flexibility of the previous agreement and creates a stronger framework for moving forward will be a major achievement. We should not only look at the achievements as a glass half full but remember that without the enormous effort of many people, including many New Zealanders, that glass would still be close to empty.’