The United Nations Environment Program released its 2012 emissions gap report a few days ago. The question for the report was basic: if we want to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius, how are we doing at cutting emissions? The answer: Not so well and if we keep doing what we are doing, then we are going to miss the target.
To quote from the report:
Current global greenhouse gas emissions, based on 2010 data from bottom-up emission inventory studies, are estimated at 50.1 GtCO2e (with a 95% uncertainty range of 45.6 – 54.6). This is already 14% higher than the median estimate (44 GtCO2e) of the emission level in 2020 with a likely chance of meeting the 2°C target. This is also about 20% higher than emissions in 2000. Global emissions are now picking up again after their decline during the economic downturn between 2008 and 2009.
To make this simple: We want the carbon emissions to be at 44 gigatons to keep warming under 2°C by 2020. Right now, they estimate we are at 50.1 gigatons. Meaning already there is a carbon gap of 6.1 gigatons of carbon emissions yearly. If we don’t make any cuts and just stay at the same level, that is a large emissions gap. If carbon emissions increase, like they are projected in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, then that only widens the gap.
Aside from the bad news, there was one point that stuck out to me in the report (which has been made before, but which I glossed over). To put the claim in its strongest possible form (which the report does not): We have until about 2020 for climate coalitions to continue to operate, and at that point they will become largely irrelevant.
Climate coalitions are a result of the stalled efforts on climate change at the international level. The first climate coalition was developed in Kyoto with the inclusion of common but differentiated responsibility. The idea was that Europe, Japan, Australia, and North America would cut their emissions while the rest of the world (the developing countries) would not have any firm commitments put upon them. With the failure of the Kyoto process, climate coalitions sprouted in various forms. The European Union deciding to institute Kyoto even without the United States, the Chicago Climate Exchange, C40 Cities, and with California pushing its own laws on the issue.
These climate coalitions could actually work. The report is clear that if all these actors actually fulfill their promises, we would close the emissions gap significantly; however, they note that right now many of them have not started the efforts and future push may be difficult. However, in the report is a series of discussions which while the report authors don’t push toward this conclusion (nor do they push for a different conclusion) which says that climate coalitions could have worked, but if we don’t close the emissions gap by 2020 they will largely become irrelevant.
The report explains that “Emission scenarios analyzed in this report and consistent with a ‘likely’ chance of meeting the 2°C target have a peak
before 2020.” Simulations show that if we miss this and emissions do not peak until after 2020, the result will be that coverage by groups of dedicated actors will grow increasingly problematic. First, it will have higher costs:
A pathway with no mitigation action by 2020 will see emissions rise during this decade while mitigation costs up to 2020 will be zero. However, after that, higher emission reduction rates will be required. As a result, pathways with high 2020 emissions will have markedly higher mitigation costs post-2020 in order to limit warming to below 2°C.
But second, it will also need near-universal membership:
All later action scenarios meeting the 2°C target and having emission levels in 2020 near to the most optimistic pledge cases… assume full global participation in stringent climate mitigation from 2020 onwards.
If we are going to keep warming under the two degree target, we can either encourage climate coalitions now or need universal climate action after 2020. When international efforts to agree to relatively minor issues are unable to achieve even modest goals, the possibility of needing near-universal climate action post-2020 should be considered a bad outcome.
The point can be put bluntly: Take action today or need the entire globe to come together tomorrow. We’ve never seen the entire planet come together to confront any problem and there are always rule-breakers and free-riders. After 2020, that option goes away and the only hope is to develop a system that can bring everyone together. I would rather not rely on that situation. Action now is not just cheaper, smarter, and safer…it also does not rely on achieving amazingly bold political outcomes.
The next 8 years are key Now is key. Delayed action simply makes it more and more likely that we will begin to face a climate cliff: a situation where even the best efforts will not achieve anything unless coupled with action from everyone else. It turns out that full support of the Kyoto and post-Kyoto coalitions is the best way to keep the climate politics within reach.