Published online 28 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.528

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Nobellists urge action on climate change

But some question whether binding emissions targets are needed.

SmokestackDeveloped countries will need to cut greenhouse gas emmissions dramatically.Punchstock

A memorandum issued today by Nobel laureates meeting in London has called for urgent global action on climate change.

Aimed at international policymakers taking part in the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, the message came at the end of a three-day symposium that brought together 60 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel Prize winners. The event was hosted by the Prince of Wales, known for his long-standing interest in conservation. US energy secretary Steven Chu was among the laureates attending the event.

Signed by Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, economics, peace and literature, the statement called for an effective and just global climate deal that confines warming to 2 ºC above preindustrial levels. This can only be achieved if developed nations decrease their emissions to at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050 and to 25–40% below 1990 levels by 2020, said the laureates.

“I hope we can deliver more than we've promised.”

Steven Chu
US Energy Secretary

To get on the right emissions trajectory, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015 at the latest, said John Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research in Germany, which organized the event in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, UK. Stressing the importance of achieving this "heroic task", Schellnhuber said that "if this is delayed by even five years and emissions peak in 2020, we will need to reduce emissions by 6% annually thereafter".

In it together

Although the statement was reached by consensus, during the course of the symposium there was less agreement on whether targets should be legally binding. China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, is presently unwilling to accept binding targets in a post-Kyoto deal. Speaking in London on Tuesday, Chu told Nature News that "to declare Copenhagen a failure if countries don't sign to binding targets is not helpful at all. The success of Copenhagen will be determined by what countries do after."

The current commitment by the United States falls far short of the targets hoped for in today's statement. If the proposed bill, sponsored by US Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, passes successfully as legislation, the United States will have pledged to decrease its emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

“It is not time to point fingers. We are all in this together.”

Wangari Maathai

In comparison, Germany has already pledged to reduce its emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and the European Union as a whole will decrease its emissions by 30% by 2020 if other nations also agree to binding targets

"I hope we can deliver more than we've promised," said Chu. "I have always liked to over-deliver on promises."

Speaking today, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Al Gore in 2007, said that "the US also has to commit resources for adaptation. That would show that they realize the inequity of the situation".

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As well as calling for a price on carbon and financial support for adaptation, the laureates highlighted the need for "an unprecedented partnership between government and business" in developing a low-carbon economy. They also said that an emergency package is needed to protect tropical rainforests — a particular passion of the Prince of Wales — without which there can be no solution to climate change.

Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work planting trees, said the event had been "extremely encouraging". "It is not time to point fingers," she added. "We are all in this together." 

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