We need a global, united vision to transition to a new, low-carbon future

Sep 2014

Without commitment to mitigative efforts and adaptation plans by governments around the world, global average temperatures will exceed the internationally accepted ‘tolerable’ average increase of 2 degrees C causing untold consequences to our economy, agriculture, water resources, health, social stability, biodiversity…. Combatting climate change provides an opportunity for creating new energy systems, transport networks, green economies, sustainable agriculture, integrated ecosystem services – we need to turn this problem into an opportunity for innovation creating new better ways of living. So, what needs to be decided by 2015, what mitigation is essential and what could this mean for you and me? Will we really lose out if we commit to preventing runaway climate change?

Overall target – preventing global average temperatures to rise more than 2ºC

The Climate Summit to be held in New York on 23rd September is about building political momentum and ensuring that a legally-binding deal in Paris next year will be achieved. Governments around the world pledged at the last UNFCCC meeting, COP19 in Warsaw last year, that they would intensify domestic preparations for their nationally determined contributions towards a universal agreement on GHG emission cuts so that they are ready well before December 2015 and ideally by the first quarter in 2015.

The target – keeping below the threshold of a 2ºC/3.5ºF increase relative to pre-industrial levels in global average temperatures (about 1.1Cº/2ºF above present levels). Note that such an increase will result in temperature increases much larger than this in the centres of large continents and Polar Regions. Above this point impacts are projected to be more severe, unpredictable, widespread and potentially irreversible.

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would need to peak below about 400 to 450 ppm and stabilize in the long-term at around today’s levels, to have a chance of keeping temperature increases below this threshold. Currently the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide stand at 397.01ppm (Mauna Loa Observatory, NOAA-ESRL, August 2014). Although 450 ppm CO2 is a widely accepted target, it is not a precise point rather a point on a continuum below which consequences are less extreme. Additionally, other climate-forcing gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, soot and halocarbons (e.g. CFCs) will also have to be stabilised to achieve this target.

So how much do we have to reduce GHG emissions to stay below this threshold?

Meeting this objective requires political will indeed! Substantial cuts in anthropogenic GHG emissions by mid-century – specifically through changing energy systems and land use – is required. GHG emissions will have to be 40-70% lower than 2010 levels and near zero by 2100! The UNFCCC (in accordance with IPCC findings) puts the target at 50% by 2050, specifically global GHG emissions have to peak by 2020 at the latest, to be reduced by at least 50% compared with 1990 levels by 2050 and to continue to decline thereafter. Developed countries as a group should reduce their GHG emissions to below 1990 levels by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 and by 80 to 95 per cent by 2050, while developing countries as a group should achieve 15 to 30 per cent by 2020.

That is why this round of talks are absolutely crucial to curbing climate change impacts. If governments do not commit we are in for an uncertain bumpy ride.

The “emissions” or “ambition gap”

At the last UNFCCC meeting it was agreed that member states would put forward their commitments well in advance of the Paris meeting. Currently, there are significant gaps between what needs to be achieved and what member states are committed to.

According to the latest IPCC report on mitigation, GHG emissions growth is expected to persist with current mitigation policies. Without additional action global mean surface temperatures are expected to increase by 4.8 C by 2100 compared with pre-industrial levels. Staying on the current trajectory means that atmospheric CO2eq* will exceed 450 ppm (parts per million) by 2030 and reach CO2eq concentration levels between 750 and more than 1300 ppm CO2eq by 2100. Remember the target is to keep concentrations below 450 ppm! If governments do not act more aggressively to reduce emissions we will not avoid the more unpredictable and extreme climate change impacts. (*CO2eq = concentration of CO2 that would cause the same level of radiative forcing as a given type and concentration of greenhouse gas).

Let’s have a look at specific countries – the good, the bad and the ugly (see the UNFCCC technical reports for an overview of commitments as of end 2013) It is challenging to say the least to make head or tail of the data regarding targets, as the baselines are all different but the following will give some indication of commitment.

Denmark shines above all others in this scramble to act before it is too late. The Danish Government’s 2020 target is to reduce GHG emissions by 40% based on 1990 levels and the country fulfilled its Kyoto obligation between 2008-2012 by reducing its emissions by 23%.

Looks good on paper but will it look good in action? The UK created the 2008 Climate Change Act, the world’s first long-term, legally-binding national framework for reducing emissions. The country has so far reduced emissions by 24% between 1990 and 2012 but prospects for future reductions look more challenging, and nuclear seems to be at the heart of UK’s approach.

A united front and fair distribution of commitments. If there is any region in the world that can achieve what is needed it is the EU. A unilateral commitment is in place whereby its 28 Member States are expected to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels. Since 1990 it seems that the EU managed to decouple economic growth – GDP grew by 45% between 1990 and 2012 while emissions of total greenhouse gases, including from international aviation, were 19.2% below the 1990 level in 2012. Latest projections suggest that the EU’s 20% reduction target will be met!

While being the largest emitter per capita, the US is not willing to budge enough. Such potential, huge disappointment. According to a 2013 UNFCCC technical report, the United States target might be in the range of a 17% emission reduction by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Depending on pending legislation, this would increase to 30% emission reduction by 2025 and a 42% emission reduction by 2030, in line with the goal to reduce emissions by 83 per cent by 2050. Will these words transform into action soon enough?

Largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, China, could turn the tables on the race to reduce emissions. China has committed to reducing the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40 to 45% compared with the level of 2005. That is simply not enough.

Australia thinks it is simply unfair that it should participate and is basically doing nothing. The Government is committed only to achieving on 5% CO2-e emissions reduction relative to 2000 emissions. It has abolished the carbon tax although it does have a $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) to be used as the primary mechanism to reduce CO2.

We need a broad, united and ambitious plan in 2015. We need more than is currently on offer.

What must be done to meet these targets?

Significant adjustments to our energy systems needs to be at the heart of mitigation, specifically expanding renewables and moving towards low-carbon alternatives. According to the IPCC achieving the targets will require:

“…rapid improvements of energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply from renewables, nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon capture and storage, bioenergy with CCS by the year 2050.”

According to the International Energy Agency, renewables will surpass gas in global power mix by 2016 and renewable power is expected to increase by 40% in the next five years. While renewables overall will make up almost a quarter of the global power mix by 2018, non-hydro sources such as wind, solar, bioenergy and geothermal will represent only 8%.

There are the exceptional stories such as Denmark where 50% of electricity generation is now sourced from renewables, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. We are not even close to quadrupling the share of low-carbon energy sources. Technologies exist to solve the problem, technologies are being developed as we speak that could transform our energy and transport systems. What is lacking is vision and political will.

As the Danish Prime Minister recently stated:

“Governments can act as a driver for the green transition. Through our regulatory instruments, we can set up conducive legal and political frameworks and introduce economic incentives and standards that promote innovation, develop new markets and build global champion industries.”

“We (Denmark) have adopted a long-term political vision. We aim to have our entire energy supply covered by renewable energy in 2050. To achieve this, we have launched an ambitious energy plan towards 2020. And numerous actions such as price regulations and standardisation measures have been introduced to limit waste and to reduce energy and water consumption.”

The UNFCCC process is currently the best chance for national governments to commit to a global vision for change. We need this vision; without it efforts will be piecemeal, incoherent and inadequate.

What’s stopping us?

Beat’s me! According to the latest report by the Global Commission on Economy and Climate, comprising representatives from the UN, OECD and the World Bank, changing toward a low-carbon future will be better for us, the environment and our economy!

“Reducing emissions is not only compatible with economic growth and development – if done well it can actually generate better growth than the old high-carbon model,” said Lord Stern a co-author of the report.
(see quite in Guardian article 16 September 2014)

 Article by Philippa Shepherd

Follow the run up to Paris, 2015
Governments will elaborate the elements of the new climate agreement as of their first meeting in March 2014, table an initial draft text by December 2014, and submit the formal draft text by May 2015, all with a view to enabling the negotiations to successfully conclude in December 2015.