U.N. Report Focuses on Climate Change Mitigation The latest international report on climate change was released Friday in Bangkok. The message is clear: Governments must act quickly to slow warming and avoid catastrophe. Guests discuss the report and strategies to mitigate climate change, including carbon sequestration technologies.
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U.N. Report Focuses on Climate Change Mitigation

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U.N. Report Focuses on Climate Change Mitigation

U.N. Report Focuses on Climate Change Mitigation

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Delegates to a global warming meeting in Bangkok have completed an agreement that provides a blueprint for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The report, the latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, lays out strategies governments can follow to cut emissions, such as replacing coal with natural gas, using energy that comes from renewable resources like wind and solar. Conservation and even nuclear are getting attention.

The report also says that now - not years in the future - now is the time to adapt these strategies and adopt them if we hope to avert the catastrophic changes that unchecked emissions will bring.

This hour we're going to talk about the report's recommendations. We'll also take a look at some of the strategies for cutting emissions and the technologies available now to do that. And later in the hour we'll talk about how climate change is more than a threat to environmental life as we know it; it's a threat to national security.

Our show this week coincides with the launch of a new NPR and National Geographic series, Climate Connections - a yearlong, worldwide exploration of how people are changing Earth's climate and how climate changes people.

We'll start the hour with a report from Bangkok, where scientists and government officials released the latest U.N. report on climate change and the ways to slow global warming. Joining me now is Jon Hamilton, science correspondent for NPR in Washington, joining us today from Bangkok. Welcome to the program.

JON HAMILTON: Hello. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Hi there. How did the negotiations play out this week?

HAMILTON: Well, I think they played out a little better than a lot of people thought they would. There was a lot of talk going in that several countries, and notably people were predicting the U.S. and China, would be sort of obstructionist when it came to especially some of the costs of the measures to do this. But they came out with the report, and the people who were involved in writing that report say that the key recommendations were not watered down. And the negotiations went late into the night, but everybody seemed to come out thinking that they really accomplished something.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the major conclusions. One of the conclusions I've been reading about says that if we adopt these measures, we're not going to break the bank. I don't want to say the World Bank, but that's sort of everybody's bank around the world.

HAMILTON: Yeah, the World Bank in the sense of the, you know, the economic production of the nation. The conclusion that they reached is that, no, it's not that expensive. It's a lot of money. Some of the technologies are very expensive. But when they figured out, when they did their estimate, they did it two ways. One way said, over 25 years, the total world's GDP might be affected by three percent, and that was in the most aggressive type of spending posture, the one that would do the most to reduce greenhouse gases.

But when you figure that as a per-year time, it's only about 0.1 percent of anybody's GDP for any one given year. So it's an effect, but it's not a huge effect.

FLATOW: What are some of the major recommendations they said that nations should be doing?

HAMILTON: Well, some of the costlier ones is, for instance, they're talking about a technology called carbon-capture technology to use on both coal-fired power plants and natural gas-fired power plants. And the idea is that the combustion creates a whole lot of carbon dioxide but it's possible to catch it and not release it into the atmosphere. Of course, that creates problems with storing it, and it's fairly expensive. But this is the kind of the thing they talked about.

Other things they talked about are much less exotic. They were talking about using more fuel-efficient vehicles, hybrid vehicles, more efficient lighting, this kind of thing.

FLATOW: Did they say how nations would pay for this?

HAMILTON: Well, there are a lot of economists at this meeting and they spend a lot of time talking about how you calculate costs. And the example they like to use is, okay, if you're going to buy a light bulb you could pay, say $1 for an incandescent bulb or $5 for a fluorescent bulb. Now, the way people usually calculate cost, they'd say I'm paying four extra dollars for a light bulb. They say if you look at the total costs of that over its lifetime - the amount of electricity it will use - you probably will spend less money over the next five years of the life of that bulb because of the electricity you will save. It's a more efficient bulb.

And they say that if you look at how much money can be saved by implementing strategies that reduce global warming you may not be spending very much money. For instance, in Thailand, where this being held, the farmers here - rice farming is a huge industry here. If the climate changes, that could greatly reduce the ability of farmers her to have rice. So, in fact, maybe they're saving their rice crop as opposed to spending a lot on cleaning up the air.

FLATOW: So they were talking about lots of personal things that people could do.

HAMILTON: Lifestyle was one of the things they mentioned specifically. We've talked about some of the things that countries could do, but they also talked about things that individuals could do. And these range from, as we mentioned, fluorescent lightings; you can put compact fluorescents in. But you can also do things like, somebody mentioned today eat less beef. Beef is associated with methane production, also a lot of transportation involved. Eat less beef, you leave less of a carbon footprint.

FLATOW: I mentioned at the top that the recommendations were saying that we must take action, they're recommending taking action very quickly.

HAMILTON: That is correct. They talked a lot about - all these things are laid out in scenarios with different time periods, but the emphasis here was on doing something in the next couple of decades. The reason for that being that every year that we continue to increase the amount of greenhouse gases, then the time to reverse the process goes way, way out into the future. So there's a big emphasis on we got to do something now. And they say it is doable. We have the technology and the cost is not that great.

FLATOW: Well, thank you for taking time to join us today.

HAMILTON: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Jon Hamilton is science correspondent for NPR in Washington. We're going to continue our discussion on the climate change report with my next guests. Elizabeth Malone is a staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. That's a collaboration between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland in College Park. She joins us from College Park. Welcome to the program, Dr. Malone.

DR. ELIZABETH MALONE (Joint Global Change Research Institute): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Robert Socolow is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. He joins us today from the campus. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor ROBERT SOCOLOW (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton University): Thank you.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, Dr. Malone - give us a rundown on the main conclusions as you see them. Did Jon leave out anything there that was important to you?

Dr. MALONE: I don't think so. I think the important thing to emphasize is the change between the last report and this report. The general conclusions are certainly the same: greenhouse gas emissions are increasing; there are plenty of mitigation opportunities; there is a pathway of emissions that must peak and decline indefinitely, no matter what your target is. But I think the research that is being assessed and that has been done since that report shows us that even in a fine-grain analysis there are so many opportunities and there are so many things that can be done both regionally specific and sectorially specific, that we can do things in the near term, in the middle term, and in the long term.

FLATOW: Rob Socolow, let's talk about the difference. A big difference since the last report?

Prof. SOCOLOW: An extraordinarily big difference. I read this myself in the last few days, and I was really startled...

FLATOW: What year was that?

Dr. MALONE: 2001.

Prof. SOCOLOW: The previous one was 2001...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. SOCOLOW: And it was all looking in a rather relaxed manner at a job that would be thought about over a whole hundred years. Most of the emphasis was on the year 2100. They've added a focus on the year 2030, 23 years from now, with more pages on that, at least in the executive summary, than on 2100. And 2030 means things you're doing in the next two decades that will make a difference to the ultimate outcome.

And the report has changed and it's real. It's talking about getting going now. It's taking target seriously that they were scarcely willing to look at before. I think this has been a group that has been hard to persuade. These are the economic modelers who've had a lot of political influence around the world, and they really have passed some kind of tipping point where they now see themselves as facilitating the action rather than questioning the action.

FLATOW: So you think they've sort of been scared straight by the research that's been coming out?

Prof. SOCOLOW: I don't know. But they are hearing from the governments what the governments are asking for. They have the tools to provide those answers and they are now doing so. And it's a very exciting development.

FLATOW: Elizabeth Malone, your take on it?

Dr. MALONE: I think the economists' own research are leading them down these paths as well. They are building out their models so that they have more detail in them and connecting them in ways that they hadn't been connected before. And so the sort of academic analyses that you saw previous to this report have yielded to more realistic and real world kind of analysis. And I would like to add that the emphasis on institutions, on governance generally, meaning not only governments but also civil society and other sectors as actors in this whole process, has been incredibly enriching in really detailing the real world pathways for mitigation to happen.

FLATOW: The countries that have been dragging their feet, the United States and some other developed countries, have been saying over the years, you know, why should we do anything if China and India are not going to be doing anything? Were they still saying that in this report?

Dr. MALONE: Not in the report. I mean, I think some of this comes out in the political process. That happens. But, you know, countries are political. That's their central nature, and so their interest will come out both in the dialogue and in their actions. But I think we're all on this together and everybody understands that.

FLATOW: Would you agree, Rob?

Prof. SOCOLOW: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I was writing the words down - we're all in this together - as Elizabeth was saying them. The report makes clear that this is a global problem. The cooperation of many different kinds is required, that the deployment of resources in the developing world assisted by the industrialized world is essential. It would be very hard for a country to opt out of this process as the momentum gets going. I don't think any country really wants to be a spoiler.

And so I'm pretty confident that when the world is underway, big countries like China and India are going to be playing as forcefully as any other. After all, this is a major new way of having economic activity in jobs, in investments of all sorts. This is going to be something that's going to preoccupy us for a long time. And we'll be doing these activities, whether it's capturing carbon and putting it below ground or building efficient transport systems in cities, we'll be doing this in a major way across the world. And there will be lots of business opportunities, lots of business competition. I can't see any country that has any aspirations to being part of the leadership of the world of passing this by.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, come back and talk more with Robert Socolow and Elizabeth Malone, and take your calls. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. Talk about global warming and the IPCC report, talking about actions that need to be taken soon. So stay with us, we'll be right back after the short break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the new climate change report, the IPCC third report, released today in Bangkok, talking about the need to get acting, get off the dime, start moving, start doing these things that we need to do so we can keep our greenhouse gas emissions down.

Our guests are Robert Socolow, president of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University; Elizabeth Malone, staff scientist in the Joint Global Change Research Institute. And our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Robert, they talked about trying to keep this within a two-Centigrade temperature change. Why is that number so important?

Prof. SOCOLOW: Well, we have various ways of talking about the targets. And two degrees Celsius temperature grade change means that would be that much warmer on the surface than it was, say, 200 years ago. That's regarded as a safer target than three degrees, three degrees is safer than four. We don't really know where the thresholds are. Going for two degrees is very tough. Going to three degrees is still tough and perhaps where we'll end up.

But I think we need to aim high, work up - meaning aim high in the sense of going for tough targets - and do as much as we can, learning as we go. There will be a tremendous amount of invention as we take this task on across the world. And what we still don't know, and was not answered by this report, is what mix of new technologies that allow us to do more or less the same things but with greater efficiency and smaller carbon footprint. First just lifestyle changes are going to be part of the picture.

FLATOW: We don't have some of these technologies available yet as you're talking about. We don't have a method that's been proven for carbon sequestration, for example.

Prof. SOCOLOW: I would politely disagree on that particular one. And the whole point of this report is we have technologies that are either completely proven or they are on the verge of being proven. In the case of carbon dioxide capture and storage, every element of that is commercialized somewhere. We don't have the social institutions fully in place. But the technologies are there. Plants are being built right now to come online in the next few years that have all of the characters of what we're talking about at full-scale. So I think people underestimate how much we have ready to deploy. It does need policy to make it worthwhile. It isn't free to put carbon dioxide underground, for example. We need to pay for it.

FLATOW: It has never been tried on a large scale, has it?

Prof. SOCOLOW: It has been tried on a large scale. There are projects where they put the C02 below ground without electric power associated with it that have been running in Norway since 1996. And there's a project in California under development that will make power and put C02 to underground by 2011. And those are just two of many examples.

Dr. MALONE: They are at - and this the crucial point - they are at a much smaller scale than would be needed to address the climate issue. And that's the problem with many of the technologies that are now I would say proven at a small scale but not at a large commercial scale, that the diffusion and scale up process needs to be rapid and yet safe.

FLATOW: That was the point I was trying to make.

Prof. SOCOLOW: Yeah. Ira, let me make the point. I'm aware that there is a confusion about this phrase full scale, because sometimes full scale means how big is the individual unit. And there are technologies that are not ready to be built in the unit scale that they'll ultimately be deployed in. Hydrogen vehicles might be an example, still on the laboratory in many instances. And then there are - but in the case of carbon capture and storage, we are building full scale, billion-dollar at a site plants today.

What the other meaning of full scale - which is I think what Elizabeth means, I agree - is that we aren't ready with the social institutions, with the full experience curve to put thousands of these units out one after the other, cookie-cutter style. There's a learning period at full individual plants scale that's going to bring about the full deployment scale.

FLATOW: Dr. Malone, do you think if we have the way do we have the will to do these things?

Dr. MALONE: Well, you know, will is not a unitary thing that everybody has at a certain level and others don't. I think there is enough will to certainly get us started at a much rapider pace than we have been going. One of the, I think, virtues of this report in particular, and also the Working Group Two report, is the way that they have started to join concepts of sustainable development, mitigation and adaptation together to talk about what kind of development path is a country and is the world on.

And that's not just, you know, we usually think of that in terms of developing countries, but everybody's on a development path and everybody is making a myriad of choices about the kinds of ways they use energy, for example, that have implications for climate change.

And so I think the will has been generated. It has been increased. You see that increase in the whole tone of this report and in its specificity. And I think that this is the beginning of something really good.

FLATOW: Well, let's - I only have a couple of minutes. Let's follow that line of thought. If this is the beginning of something really good, how do we know that anybody is taking it to heart and is implementing? What signs should we look for?

Prof. SOCOLOW: I think we look for what's going on in Washington at the present time, for example, where the U.S. in the Congress has changed the spirit of what's going on dramatically, compared to a few months ago. Many bills being developed across buildings and transport and industry and coal power and fuels. It's just an extraordinary effusion of new suggestions and new concepts that's going to sort itself out.

The Europeans are a couple of years ahead in some of their institutions. I think this is what we're going to see. What I would in, effectively, is the level of self-confidence of our species about this problem that we are facing at a planetary scale is dramatically higher than just a few years ago. Washington reflects it and this report, above all, reflects it. And, after all, the governments didn't have to approve this report. It was developed by the scientists, put to the governments. The governments chewed on it for a week, made changes and have gone through the report. The number of changes is really quite minor. The whole spirit of the initial draft that the government saw on Monday is still there on Friday. And so they are signing on. This was their opportunity to throw it out, and they didn't. They say, this sounds fine.

FLATOW: Elizabeth Malone, do you think this will be - I mean, this has never been an issue in the presidential debate or presidential election before in this country, not seriously. Do you think this time around it might be?

Dr. MALONE: I think there's a very good chance it will be. It joins a list of issues that I think people feel have been neglected. And it could very well be an issue, hard to predict on that.

Prof. SOCOLOW: I find it hard to imagine a candidate running against climate change policy at this point. But you may be right, Ira.

FLATOW: I don't know. And it's hard to predict anything, you know. The president has come around slightly on this, saying that it is, you know, it is a manmade, or part of it is manmade. And this report is about the mitigation of climate change, but we should know that countries are going to have to adapt to some changes that will be unavoidable, right? I mean, we're going to have all kinds of changes. You can't stop the water levels in the oceans from rising, certain things that - you can't stop the migration of animals and diseases and things around the climate, around the country.

Prof. SOCOLOW: You're right that there will have to be investments and accommodations to the change that's coming, because it won't be zero. But we can make such a huge difference by attending to the impact we're making ourselves.

FLATOW: Last comment, Dr. Malone?

Dr. MALONE: I think the institutions at all levels and in all countries are going to make a tremendous difference both individually and collectively in how we go about addressing this issue.

FLATOW: I want to thank you both for taking time to join us today.

Dr. MALONE: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Prof. SOCOLOW: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Elizabeth Malone, staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. That's a collaboration between Pacific Northwest National Lab and the University of Maryland in College Park. Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University.

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