A world with 30 percent fewer species. Huge water shortages caused by disappearing glaciers affecting hundreds of millions of people. Tropical rain forests dying out as ground water disappears. An accelerating overall rise in world temperatures. All this and more could be the world's fate in just a few short decades.
That, at least, is the ominous tale told by the report released this spring by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This month, though, the IPCC said it had made a mistake. Our future is actually much bleaker. The original predictions had been based on current emissions of greenhouse gases. As it happens, such emissions are still climbing by 3 percent each year.
"Scientists are telling us we have a very small window of time in which to act," Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We have 10 or 15 years to turn global emissions from their current upward trend to an extreme downward trend."
That small window of time begins Monday on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali. Over 10,000 diplomats and scientists from around the globe will gather to begin the task of reaching an agreement that will perhaps lead the world away from the climate change brink. The challenge, though, is immense. The first such UNFCCC-brokered emissions agreement, widely known as the Kyoto Protocol, has done little to halt rising temperatures and a concurrent rise in apparently climate-related natural catastrophes. With Kyoto expiring in 2012, a sense of urgency surrounds the round of talks kicking off on Monday. And Europe is hoping to lead the charge.
Much Tougher than Kyoto
"Our goal in Bali is to convince the rest of the world that we need to have emissions reductions that ensure we do not raise the Earth's median temperature more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Barbara Helfferich, European Commission spokeswoman for the environment.
Few are expecting the one week conference to go much beyond identifying the broad directives the ultimate treaty will address and agreeing to draft a new treaty by 2009. But it is the start of a longer negotiating process -- and one that many hope will be much tougher than Kyoto. Under that agreement, 35 of the worlds largest economies committed to cut emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. But with the US not ratifying the treaty and developing countries like China and India allowed to continue spewing as much carbon dioxide as they want into the atmosphere, some of the world's biggest polluters were unaffected. Fewer than 800 million people out of a world population of 6.6 billion live in countries bound by Kyoto to reduce emissions.
The US, though, as the world's largest and dirtiest economy, remains high up on the Europeans' list of Bali priorities. They are hoping that the dramatic findings of the IPCC report -- and a 2009 change in presidential leadership-- might reshape US policy.
"The position of the United States and how much it chooses to obstruct the process -- that will depend on what kind of an agreement there is between the EU and the large developing countries," Dr. Hermann Ott, head of the Berlin office of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Defining Capacity at Bali
Requiring those rapidly developing countries to control emissions is the second major treaty element that the EU will insist on. Almost 180 nations have signed the Kyoto Protocol, but only the richest nations are bound to make emissions cuts. The new treaty, EU leaders say, must require emissions reductions from other major polluters, like the booming economies of Brazil, China and India. "The contribution of developing countries must be binding as well, in a common but differentiated way," said Helfferich. "That means according to capacity, and what that capacity is needs to be defined at Bali."
But emissions won't be the only focus of the Bali conference and subsequent treaty negotiations. Climate change is already happening. The ice caps are melting, glaciers are receding, and ocean levels are rising -- and some countries are already feeling the effects. EU negotiators and climate researchers stress the need for Kyoto's successor to include a number of preventative and adaptive initiatives -- helping low-lying nations build levies, for example, or agricultural assistance to help poor farmers adapt to changing weather patterns -- to lessen the impact of climate changes that previous emissions have already set in motion.
We have to create mechanisms that allow developing countries to limit emissions without jeopardizing economic growth and poverty eradication, said de Boer. De Boer's UNFCCC is the organizer of the Bali conference, and will direct the ongoing discussions to draft a new treaty.
'Mutually Assured Destruction'
Still, in addition to helping poor countries deal with climate change, the UNFCCC also wants to help them take their share of the burden. While industry in most developing countries still doesn't emit much carbon dioxide relative to the world's biggest polluters, deforestation has developed into a major problem. Not only do healthy forests serve as "carbon sinks," absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in its place, but deforestation in tropical countries now accounts for 20 percent of the carbon released into earth's atmosphere each year. A study released in August concluded that current programs to cut emissions, including the Kyoto Protocol, provide little incentive for leaders of tropical nations to keep their forests intact.
'Something in its Place'
"On a very local level, you are only going to get the guy holding an axe to put it down if you can put in place an economic alternative that is equal to cutting down the tree or building something in its place," said de Boer.
One such incentive would be to funnel funding to nations with tropical forests through an international carbon trading market. In such a system, richer, higher-polluting nations would be able to fund the preservation of carbon-rich forests to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union is piloting a similar emissions trading scheme, and according to UNFCCC, trading on that market was worth $30 billion in 2006.
Additionally, though, European commentators stressed that the most important help will be direct financial support from rich nations to projects far beyond their own borders. Continental leaders say they are willing to make a major financial commitment to global emissions reduction, though no one has yet come up with an actual number. Even if the money does materialize, they cannot go it alone.
"If Europe is very ambitious on climate change but its competitors are not, then a climate change regime will just cause factories and jobs to leave the EU without any global benefit of emissions reduction," de Boer points out. "A key part of the challenge is to create a regime that allows a European producer to be very ambitious in their energy saving methods in the knowledge that someone is not making the same product without taking emissions into account."
'Mutually Assured Destruction'
So far, Europes efforts to forestall climate change have not hurt its economy. Helfferich noted that European Union member states this spring committed to unilaterally reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, with further reductions planned should an international deal be made.
The evidence in favor of that deal is mounting rapidly. Climate change naysayers have become few and far between while reports as to the increasingly vulnerable state of our climate are mounting. That, say European negotiators heading to Bali this week, may be their strongest weapon. And they are hoping it will be enough.
"We have a situation like in the Cold War, with mutually assured destruction," said Ott. "The difference is that in the Cold War the challenge was to refrain from doing something. Now the challenge is bigger because we have to actually do something."