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Sandy Surfaces, Kyoto at Stake in U.N. Climate Talks

Thousands have converged for a two-week meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Running through Dec. 7, the U.N. conference brings together environmental minds across the world to work toward a legally binding agreement on climate change. At stake: the Kyoto Protocol. Last week, the World Bank issued a report suggesting that a temperature rise of  more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 could cause widespread crop failures, malnutrition and significant sea-level rise. Kyoto is the only global agreement to cut greenhouse emissions, and it is set to expire at the end of this year. In The Washington Post, Brad Plumer shows what Kyoto has (and has not) achieved, and what any new agreement must achieve in order to avoid 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming.

The world is watching to see whether details for a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which lays the groundwork for a new global treaty, can be agreed upon. A second phase of Kyoto, Nature reports, would only temporarily replace the original agreement. That’s why some hope COP 18 climate negotiators commit to signing a new treaty by 2015, to take effect by 2020—or possibly earlier if some countries pushing for more ambitious action get their way.

Counterparts from European and vulnerable nation delegations routinely criticize the U.S. as the major reason these negotiations lack ambition. Experts say China and the United States aren’t keeping pace with the smaller countries—the global leaders in generating power from clean sources. Still, some are cautiously optimistic the U.S. will be more than a bystander during talks in light of the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Studies Coming out of Doha

A number of new studies informing decisions during COP 18 are being shared at the conference by organizations across the world. Among the highlights:

Permafrost: The United Nations Environment Program released a report recommending that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) address the gases emitted from melting permafrost, which could account for almost 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change: A report by the World Meteorological Organization stated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere reached record highs in 2011, indicating “climate change is taking place before our eyes.”

Blue Carbon: Destruction of coastal habitats may release as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, 10 times higher than previously reported. A new report by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions looks at how this blue carbon—stored in sediment layers below mangroves sea grasses and salt marshes—might be addressed within existing UNFCCC mechanisms.

Sea-Level Rise: Another report says sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than the United Nations originally predicted.

Criminal Charges Bar BP from New Contracts

BP appeared in court this week to answer to charges brought over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At a brief arraignment hearing before a federal judge in New Orleans, BP’s lawyer said the company’s board authorized entering a not guilty plea as a procedural matter, but the company still intends to plead guilty later.

On Nov. 15, the company announced that it would plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and other charges and agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve a federal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11. As a result of those criminal charges, the company and its affiliates were recently suspended from new contracts with the U.S. government for a “lack of business integrity.” The temporary suspension won’t affect current contracts, but it was unclear what new or pending contracts were affected. “Federal executive branch agencies take these actions to ensure the integrity of federal programs by conducting business only with responsible individuals or companies. Suspensions are a standard practice when a responsibility question is raised by action in a criminal case,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.