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A climate change agreement is not out of reach

Prospect Magazine


The Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the most significant attempt so far to shield us from the effects of man-made global warming, expires on 31st December. We need a successor. Since the 1997 Kyoto agreement, scientists and engineers have developed new ways to use energy more efficiently. But these changes won’t be enough without a more ambitious global deal than we’ve had before.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the two-week Doha climate change conference, which ended on 7th December. Seventeen thousand people from 197 countries have poured into the tiny Gulf state of Qatar (which happens to have the highest per capita emissions in the world). The aim is to lay the groundwork for a successor to the Kyoto agreement—Kyoto Mark 2—in Paris in three years’ time.

The Kyoto Protocol set greenhouse gas reduction targets for 37 industrialised countries. It led to some falls—partly because it coincided with the drop in the use of coal in Europe—but not nearly enough. Three years ago in Copenhagen, 40,000 ministers, officials and activists tried again. Their starting point was the scientific recommendation that the rise in average global temperatures should be kept within two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. They predicted that this had a good chance of limiting some damaging consequences of global warming such as a rise in sea levels or swings in weather patterns.

For this to be done, the scientists projected, global carbon emissions should not exceed 44 gigatons in the year 2020. Yet current greenhouse gas emissions are over 50 gigatons (which means there is already an “emissions gap” of over six gigatons) and will rise to 58 gigatons by 2020.

Can we make cuts on this scale or is this all pie-in-the-sky? One of the most important things to come out of the Doha meeting was the Emissions Gap Report 2012, coordinated by the UN Environment Programme and the European Climate Foundation. The report estimated that reductions in the range of 17 gigatons are possible, from efficiency in the design and construction of buildings, power generation and transport. That potential 17 gigaton fall would bring annual global emissions below the crucial 44 gigaton level.

There is another reason for optimism. Large reserves of natural gas that have recently come onto world markets have already lowered emissions. American shale gas, less polluting than coal, has helped the US move halfway towards meeting its commitment of cutting emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

So what’s the need for a new Kyoto-style treaty? Wouldn’t it be enough just to make the efficiency gains spelled out in this report, using economic incentives to encourage technological innovation and changes in practice?

The problem is that these efficiency gains may be hard (and sometimes costly) to achieve. The challenge is shown more clearly in an assessment by PwC, the professional services firm. This monitors the rate of “decarbonisation”—reducing carbon emissions—required to prevent temperatures from rising by more than two degrees.

This year, PwC estimated that the improvement in global carbon intensity (how much carbon is emitted for the energy consumed) which is required to meet that two degrees target has risen to 5.1 per cent a year, for every year from now to 2050.

No modern industrial economy has ever attained this level of decarbonisation; yet the task is to achieve it for 38 consecutive years. Since the millennium, there has been an average improvement in global carbon intensity of only 0.8 per cent per year. If the world continues to decarbonise at this rate, there will be an emissions gap of 12 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2020 and nearly 70 gigatons by 2050.

Given the scale of the possible shortfall, prudence dictates a two-pronged approach: an efficiency drive, pursued by national governments and regional groups, plus continued efforts for an international deal which would build on local achievements.

For instance, the UK has set itself legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions. The 2008 Climate Change Act calls for a 34 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 (measured from 1990). That should be the UK’s and the EU’s starting point in the post-Kyoto talks.

Gains delivered through technology and market forces must be supplemented by international agreements, which aim to ensure the “buy-in” of countries not part of the OECD, a group that represents the older industrialised countries. In 1990, Anil Kumar Agarwal, founder-director of one of India’s leading environmental groups, argued that the rich industrialised countries were to blame for already having used up the “absorptive capacity” of the atmosphere. If developing countries were to be forced to take measures to deal with a problem not of their own creation, he argued, they should be helped to do so.

His argument lies at the heart of the challenge of global climate talks today. While developed countries examine what they can do at home, they also have to consider what it might be worth to them to help poorer countries, in cash or technology, to follow suit.

The economist Nicholas Stern, now Lord Stern, estimated back in 2006 that it might cost 1 per cent of global GDP to hold atmospheric carbon concentrations at the 500 to 550 ppm (parts per million) level. Such levels might indeed take the world beyond the two degree increase in global temperatures so far considered an acceptable limit. So there would be measures of adaptation and “mitigation” to be paid for as well.

If the total costs of dealing with climate change rose, say, to 1.5 per cent of global GDP, with most of that being borne by the richer countries, would that be totally out of reach? Surely not, given the costs—as Stern pointed out—of not taking action.

In 1987, confronted with the realities of the “ozone hole” in the upper atmosphere, the world adopted the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances with clear targets and financial arrangements to encourage the participation of developing countries. There is no reason why Kyoto Mark 2 can’t do the same. As always, it is a matter of political will.

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