As world leaders converged on Paris for historic climate talks, a coalition of governments and private investors launched a major research initiative that seeks to pour billions of dollars into an urgent search for solutions to global warming.
United States President Barack Obama and Microsoft founder Bill Gates were expected to stand with counterparts from 20 countries today in announcing the unprecedented effort, which is aimed at spurring rapid advances in research and development for clean energy, US officials said.
Nineteen governments, including the US, China and India, will join in a "Mission Innovation" initiative that commits governments to a doubling of public investments in basic energy research over the next five years, Obama Administration officials said.
In a separate programme heavily backed by Gates, 28 of the world's wealthiest investors will pool their money to provide early-stage capital for technologies that offer promise in bringing affordable clean energy to billions of people, especially in the developing world.
"Given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths, and that means we also need to invent new approaches," Gates said in a statement at the launch of the private initiative, dubbed the "Breakthrough Energy Coalition". Gates said he was "optimistic that we can invent the tools we need" to battle climate change while providing energy to the world's poor. The amount of investment planned wasn't announced.
The programmes were formally unveiled at the opening of the 12-day climate conference attended by diplomats from more than 190 countries. Negotiators at the talks will seek to hammer out an accord on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
In the run-up to the talks, more than 180 countries have already submitted pledges to cut or limit carbon pollution, with the aim of keeping global temperatures from rising by more than 2C above pre-industrial averages. But US officials acknowledge that the pledges made so far are not enough to keep the planet from crossing a threshold that scientists say will likely result in major ecological disruptions, including rising sea levels, mass extinctions and extreme weather events such as mega-droughts and destructive storms.
China's capital Beijing maintained an "orange" pollution alert, the second-highest level, closing highways, halting or suspending construction and prompting a warning to residents to stay indoors - all as the climate change talks begin. It is the first time this year that authorities have raised the orange alert, second only to red, which means heavy smog is forecast for three days.
In Paris, police fired tear gas at protesters who hurled projectiles at them as a largely peaceful human chain of several thousand formed nearby to urge action on global warming. A small group, some masked, took part in the violence, with some of them chanting: "State of emergency, police state, you will not deprive us of our right to demonstrate." One young man who gave his name as Ricard said: "The Government is using the state of emergency to clamp down on environmental activists."
Police arrested 280 people during the protest. At least 24 activists have been placed under house arrest across France under the emergency powers to avoid provocations.
There were running battles in Place de la Republique where earlier activists had placed hundreds of pairs of shoes in a symbolic protest after public demonstrations were banned in the wake of the terror attacks in mid-November that killed 130 people.
Activists in France scaled back their plans for protests when the Government imposed a state of emergency after the attacks, banning a planned demonstration in Paris that had been meant as the biggest of similar demonstrations around the world.
Protesters in the square mingled with people laying flowers in honour of those killed in the attacks. Security is tight with 2800 police and soldiers guarding the conference venue near Le Bourget Airport, while another 6300 officers have been deployed.
Major change seen since Kyoto pact
This time, it's a hotter, waterier, wilder Earth that world leaders are trying to save.
The last time that the nations of the world struck a binding agreement to fight global warming was 1997, in Kyoto, Japan. As leaders gather for a conference in Paris today to try to do more, it's clear things have changed dramatically over the past 18 years.
Some differences can be measured: degrees on a thermometer, trillions of tonnes of melting ice, a rise in sea level of a few centimetres. Epic weather disasters, including punishing droughts, killer heatwaves and monster storms, have plagued Earth.
As a result, climate change is seen as a more urgent and concrete problem than it was last time.
Other, nonphysical changes since 1997 make many experts more optimistic than in previous climate negotiations. For one, improved technology is pointing to the possibility of a world weaned from fossil fuels, which emit heat-trapping gases. Businesses and countries are more serious about doing something, in the face of evidence that some of science's worst-case scenarios are coming to pass.
"I am quite stunned by how much the Earth has changed since 1997," Princeton University's Bill Anderegg said. "In many cases (eg Arctic sea ice loss, forest die-off due to drought), the speed of climate change is proceeding even faster than we thought it would two decades ago."
Eighteen years ago, the discussion was far more about average temperatures, not the freakish extremes. Now, scientists and others realise it is in the more frequent extremes that people are truly experiencing climate change.
Witness the "large downpours, floods, mudslides, the deeper and longer droughts, rising sea levels from the melting ice, forest fires," former US Vice-President Al Gore, who helped negotiate the 1997 agreement, said. "There's a long list of events that people can see and feel viscerally right now. Every night on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation."
Studies have shown that man-made climate change contributed in a number of recent weather disasters. Among those that climate scientists highlight as most significant: the 2003 European heatwave that killed 70,000 people in the deadliest such disaster in a century; Hurricane Sandy, worsened by sea level rise, which caused more than US$67 billion in damage and claimed 159 lives; the 2010 Russian heatwave that left more than 55,000 dead; the drought still gripping California; and Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6000 in the Philippines in 2013.
Still, "while the Earth is a lot more dangerous on one side, the technologies are a lot better than they were," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Solar and wind have come down tremendously in price, so much so that a Texas utility gives away wind-generated electricity at night. Another big change is China. In Kyoto, China and developing countries weren't required to cut emissions. Global warming was seen as a problem for rich nations to solve. But now China - the chief carbon polluter - has reached agreement with the US to slow emissions and has become a leader in solar power.
Eight cold stats on global warming since 1997
1. The West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have lost 5 trillion tonnes, according to Andrew Shepherd at the University of Leeds, who used Nasa and European satellite data.
2. The five-year average surface global temperature for January to October has risen by 0.36 C, between 1993-97 and 2011-15, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1997, Earth set a record for the hottest year, but it didn't last. Records were set in 1998, 2005, 2010 and 2014, and it is sure to happen again in 2015 when the results are in from the year, according to NOAA.
3. The average glacier has lost about 12m, of ice thickness since 1997, according to Samuel Nussbaumer at the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Switzerland.
4. With 1.2 billion more people in the world, carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels climbed nearly 50 per cent between 1997 and 2013, according to the US Department of Energy. The world is spewing more than 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a day now.
5. The seas have risen nearly 6.2cm, on average since 1997, according to calculations by the University of Colorado.
6. At its low point during the summer, the Arctic sea ice is on average 2123790 sq km smaller than it was 18 years ago, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre.
7. The five deadliest heat waves of the past century - in Europe in 2003, Russia in 2010, India and Pakistan this year, Western Europe in 2006 and southern Asia in 1998 - have come in the past 18 years, according to the International Disaster Database run by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster in Belgium.
8. The number of weather and climate disasters worldwide has increased by 42 per cent, though deaths are down 58 per cent.
- Telegraph Group Ltd, Washington Post - Bloomberg, AAP, AP