Arko Datta / Reuters A flower grows close to a thermal power plant on the outskirts of Nagpur, December 9, 2009.

Weighing the Climate Elephant

The First Step to a Sustainable Future

During the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris this November, there will be more in the conference rooms than white boards, translation technology, and steely-eyed negotiators. There will also be an elephant. Namely, the gap between the carbon-cutting pledges that countries are making and the cuts that scientists say are needed to keep the increase in the average global temperature below 1.5–2 degrees Celsius (2.7–3.6 degrees in Fahrenheit)—the threshold that likely separates the world from the worst effects of climate change.

Nearly everyone involved in the climate process expects such a gap to exist. What’s unknown is how big it will be. Assessments by non-government organizations show a difference of many gigatons; some analysts predict that the pledges will secure only about half of the reductions needed. And the gap is expected to grow over time.

If the negotiators are serious about putting humanity on a path to a safer future, they shouldn’t leave the table without weighing the elephant in the room and figuring out what to do with it.

Any climate agreement that fails to take the emissions gap into account will fall shamefully short of what the world needs to avoid catastrophe. If the negotiators are serious about putting humanity on a path to a safer future, they shouldn’t leave the table without weighing the elephant in the room and figuring out what to do with it.

MIND THE GAP

Why is addressing the emissions gap even up for debate? The answer comes down to one word: Copenhagen.

In the lead-up to the COP15 talks held in that city six years ago, many countries, scientists, and civil society experts advocated for a top-down agreement requiring countries to first calculate the amount of emissions reductions needed to stay below the two-degree threshold and then equitably divide the work of meeting that target. But the Copenhagen talks collapsed because countries could not agree on how to fairly carve up the carbon pie—and because the United States and other high-emitting countries couldn’t get agreement on major emissions cuts back home.

Demonstrators protest the draft text on climate change produced by negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, December 19, 2009.

Demonstrators protest the draft text on climate change produced by negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, December 19, 2009.

Nobody wants a repeat of Copenhagen. So, in the run-up to the Paris talks, negotiators have agreed that each country can submit whatever emissions target it deems appropriate and politically feasible. In a remarkable expression of collective pragmatism, nearly all stakeholders have accepted this bottom-up approach. But if the agreement fails to incorporate some key safety features—starting with a measure of the emissions gap (which will unavoidably arise from this approach) and creating a process to close it—any meaningful outcome in Paris is at great risk.

Measuring the gap should be straightforward. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body composed of top climate scientists chosen by their governments, released a report that included a collection of peer-reviewed emissions scenarios for limiting warming to the necessary target. All governments have formally adopted the report. By simply comparing the total of nations’ declared emissions targets against the scenarios in the IPCC report, countries would know how far off course they are.

The question of whether to even calculate the gap was one of the most contentious issues at COP20 in Lima last December. But nothing about the climate process has been so simple, and the question of whether to even calculate the gap was one of the most contentious issues at COP20 in Lima last December. The agreement crafted there contained language outlining a fairly strong gap-assessment process—that is, it did until the final hours, when the language disappeared. In its place, governments instructed the UN climate secretariat to “create a synthesis report of the aggregate effect of [the country pledges].” There was no call for comparing national pledges to what’s required by science. And the report isn’t due until November, leaving only a few days for countries to react to it before the Paris talks begin.

Even so, this could be a decent first step toward weighing the elephant if the secretariat produces a strong report. Unfortunately, that’s a big if. There are whispers that the secretariat is under strong pressure from some countries to interpret the directive in the Lima Agreement narrowly. Those countries are said to be pushing for only a bare-bones summary of the country targets, rather than an assessment comparing targets against science-based trajectories that would keep emissions in a livable range. The secretariat should resist such interference and instead provide the substantive comparative analysis that the world needs. The analysis should also be the starting point for making regular, formal gap assessments part of the Paris agreement.

FROM MEASURING TO CLOSING

Measuring the gap, of course, is just the first step. A Paris climate agreement should also create an explicit approach to closing it. The good news is that many of the necessary pieces are already on the negotiating table. Taken together, they could form a path out of Paris that keeps a safer future in sight.

The first element is cooperative mitigation targets. Under this approach, both developed and developing countries would submit two-part “dual targets” to reduce emissions—one part to be done unilaterally, the second to be achieved through cooperation. Developing countries would follow the approach taken by Mexico, which agreed to cut emissions by 22 percent by 2030 on its own, and up to 40 percent with help from other nations. At COP20, several other developing countries sent the same signal through the Lima Challenge. The question going into Paris is whether developed countries will respond with dual targets of their own. Developed country two-part targets would include a pledge to reduce emissions at home and a second pledge to cooperate with developing countries to achieve greater cuts to move to the higher end of their target range. Thus far, pledges announced by the EU and the United States are limited to domestic emissions reductions; that won’t be enough and everyone knows it. Former Congressman Henry Waxman recently endorsed the dual target approach calling on the United States to add to its domestic pledge with a commitment to cooperate with other nations to secure an additional one gigaton of emissions reductions in developing countries. U.S. support could come in the form of export credit finance, technology, and capacity building support or other financial incentives. The newly announced U.S.–Mexico climate task force or upcoming bilateral talks with Indonesia could test such a partnership ahead of Paris.

World Wildlife Fund activists light candles representing the earth on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP16 in Cancun, December 5, 2010.

World Wildlife Fund activists light candles representing the earth on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP16 in Cancun, December 5, 2010.

The second is called Workstream 2. For three years, UN negotiators have been prototyping this promising process for addressing the first-generation emissions gap—created by the shortfall from the Copenhagen targets expiring in 2020. By bringing together technical experts, Workstream 2 has uncovered solutions that could cut emissions quickly while delivering other development benefits such as better health and rural economic development. Perhaps more importantly, it has cracked open the doors of the UN talks to the private sector and other non-government experts, fostering creativity and practical solutions. Still, Workstream 2 has yet to produce concrete initiatives, partially because it has been starved of resources and political attention. Negotiators should link an expanded Workstream 2 to existing mechanisms, such as the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund, and the Technology Executive Committee, to give it legs.

Finally, pundits disagree about the impact of a UN climate agreement but not about whether the climate talks are good at generating political attention. They are, in part because they are the only stage on which smaller, vulnerable countries and civil society have a voice. Starting in Paris, an annual high-level platform should be created where government and corporate leaders are expected to consistently deliver new cooperative action beyond the modest national targets, and where progress to close the gap is monitored. In June, several governments proposed appointing prominent, global leaders, such as respected former heads of state, to lead this kind of high-level process.

DON’T FEAR THE ELEPHANT

The elephant in the room in Paris is scary. But we must confront it. Closing our eyes won’t make it disappear. Given that the objective of the Paris talks is to address climate change, observers can be forgiven for wondering why there is so much resistance to such fundamental steps as measuring and closing the emissions gap. As with many roadblocks in the UN process, it’s about fairness.

For 200 years, economies in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia, powered their prosperity with enormous amounts of polluting fossil fuels, putting us on the edge of climate disaster. Today, developing nations are growing fastest, so closing the emissions gap falls largely on their shoulders, even as fairness says that developed countries should do more. Developing nations have been reluctant to take on what they see as a disproportionate share of the problem at a critical moment in their economic evolution.

Villagers rest on an oil well as a fire burns a palm oil plantation at the haze hit Bangko Pusako district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 22, 2013.

Villagers rest on an oil well as a fire burns a palm oil plantation at the haze hit Bangko Pusako district in Rokan Hilir, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 22, 2013.

This standoff could have been solved if developed countries had kept their promise from Copenhagen to mobilize $100 billion in annual climate assistance, but they have failed to fully meet this goal due to economic and political challenges at home. In Paris, developed nations will need to show how they will partner with nations such as Mexico, India, and Indonesia to meet the bold emissions goals those countries are setting. In all, the fate of the emissions gap could be determined by whether nations close another gap—in finance.  

Some have suggested that a Paris agreement that finally secures emissions-reductions commitments from major players such as China and the United States would be reason enough to celebrate. They say that we can effectively kick the can down the road, waiting for proposed, regular five-year reviews that might start producing stronger targets by 2030. But we don’t have 10 or 15 years to wait. The longer we put off closing the gap, the more expensive future climate action and impact will be. Left to suffer will be island nations, farmers from California to Kenya, 128 U.S. military bases, and coastal cities from Miami to Mumbai, among many others. The stakes are high.

The elephant in the room in Paris is scary. But we must confront it. Closing our eyes won’t make it disappear.

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