With only days remaining until diplomats are due to arrive in Tianjin for the final round of climate negotiations before the Cancun summit, scientists have provided a grim reminder of how little progress governments have made in addressing the threat of climate change and the consequences of continued inaction. Yet the statements being made by some world leaders suggest that governments are still unwilling to acknowledge the scope of the problem.

Stern Warning

Research now suggests that the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen was an even bigger failure than originally thought. A study published yesterday in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the national emissions reduction commitments countries made under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord will still result in a dangerous increase in the global average temperature. The cuts would only limit warming over the next century to 4.2º C (7.6º F), according to the analysis of scientists from seven European research centers. The increase baked into the Copenhagen Accords is only slightly off the “catastrophic” 5 – 7º C rise the UK’s Met Office warned would result if the world continued to burn fossil fuels at the present rate.

Global warming in excess of 2º C could produce disastrous changes to the earth’s ecosystems. The study’s authors warn that the present cuts will not be enough to save heat-sensitive coral reefs, the “rainforests of the sea.” Already, scientist are predicting a widespread coral die off in the Caribbean, which will decimate the wide range of marine life that thrives in this fragile habitat. As ScienceDaily notes “coral reefs provide services estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion globally each year,” the loss of which would benefit no one at the negotiating table.

At this point, it is not even clear that the best efforts of negotiators could prevent dangerous warming from occurring. According to the Environmental Research Letters study, with an emissions reduction of 50% by 2050, there is still a less than 50% chance of keeping the global temperature rise under 2º C. “It is clear from this analysis that higher ambitions for 2020 are necessary” to limit increases to below 2º C “without relying on potentially infeasible reduction rates after 2020,” the scientists concluded.

Ignoring the Problem

Meanwhile, world leaders are heading to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Tianjin with ambitions too small to address the looming crisis. In an interview with Rolling Stone, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would begin pursuing climate protection in “chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation.” But according to an analysis published by the World Resources Institute after the US climate bill died in the Senate, that piecemeal approach can only get the world’s largest historic contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs) close to but short of the relatively insubstantial reductions Obama promised at COP 15.

China, the world’s biggest GHG producer and the host of next week’s talks, is setting similarly lackluster goals. “China hopes that based on the outcomes from Cancun, we’ll be able to settle on a legally binding document at the meeting in South Africa,” senior Chinese climate negotiator Li Gao said in the Chinese Economic Times newspaper. After the COP 17 South Africa summit scheduled for the end of 2011, Li said “we’ll move to concrete implementation.”

But neither scientists nor diplomats truly know whether treaty negotiators will be able to agree upon a stronger treaty. And if one eventually does comes to pass, by that time even an ambitious global agreement may be too late to prevent the type of extreme warming the deeply flawed Copenhagen Accord aimed to prevent.