OPINION: Two Developments Climate Negotiators Should Heed

Two news items from opposite ends of the carbon cycle are potentially hopeful signs for our planet's climate - and in principle could have a positive bearing on the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December.  

The Wall Street Journal on Friday reported on a U.S. Geological Survey report [PDF] suggesting that economically extractable coal reserves in the United States, typically measured at some 240 years' worth, could be substantially less abundant than previously thought - perhaps only half the estimated reserves.  

"We really can't say we're the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore," the head of the study told the Journal. The news is consistent with the findings of a 2007 National Research Council study and is similar to other reports of overestimates of economically recoverable coal reserves in other countries.   

If King Coal's crown is tarnished, what impact will this have on U.S. climate negotiations? Will negotiators be less likely to view coal as a core long-term energy source, and therefore more inclined to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels? Or will coal interests pressure the government to fight harder to protect coal, in order to capture the likely increase in the value of a declining resource? Will the more limited view of coal supplies increase or decrease the prospects for carbon sequestration technology? How will it change the U.S. negotiating relationship vis-à-vis China, the world's largest holder of coal?

At the opposite side of the carbon cycle, the United Nations Environment Programme released an interesting report [PDF] on the potential of the world's forests, farmland, and peatland to soak up atmospheric carbon.

Among the findings: "Reducing deforestation rates by 50 percent by 2050 and then maintaining them at this level until 2100 would avoid the direct release of up to 50 Gt of carbon this century, equivalent to 12 percent of the emissions reductions needed to keep atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 450 ppm."

The report also found that the agricultural sector could be essentially carbon neutral by 2030 if sustainable management practices were followed, echoing the findings of a Worldwatch Institute report issued last week. But achieving this carbon "sponging" potential requires a conservation approach to agriculture, forests, and peatland. Will conservation issues - less sexy than carbon sequestration and other technological fixes - receive the attention they deserve at Copenhagen?

Less coal and more carbon sponges are potentially good news for climate stabilization. But neither development is automatically an assist to the climate. Negotiators will have to do the heavy lifting to leverage these developments into climate-friendly commitments and policies.

Gary Gardner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.