Only the most ambitious emissions reductions under discussion within UNFCCC can achieve climate goals

Countries representing 190 nations are participating in United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change talks this week (see Climate Envoy Stern in Bonn: The U.S. can’t “ride in on a white horse and make it all work”). Guest blogger Andrew Jones and Elizabeth Swain has been doing important modeling work on what climate commitments are needed to avert catastrophic impacts in a post first published here.

mar-28-croads-graph-3The diplomats at this week’s UNFCCC meeting in Bonn will need to aim towards the most ambitious proposals offered so far within the UNFCCC process if they want a global agreement later this year that will stabilize CO2 levels in the range of 350-450 ppm.

The figure to the left — the output of the C-ROADS simulator — explains why.

We collected emissions reductions proposals in the public domain up until March 10, 2009 (called “Current Proposals” in the graph and documented here) — and found that even if they were fully implemented they would be far from sufficient to meet the goal of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels at or below 450 ppm, reaching instead about 730 ppm by 2100.

These proposals would not be sufficient to limit warming to 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures, creating instead approximately 4°C of temperature increase by 2100.

“Current proposals” reduce the gap between “Business As Usual” (BAU) and the trajectory required to limit global average temperature to 2°C by less than 50%.

If the UNFCCC process is to achieve widely accepted climate goals — such as stabilizing CO2 levels between 350-450 ppm and limiting temperature increase to less than 2°C over pre-industrial — then, in the next nine months, emissions reduction proposals are going to need to become significantly more ambitious.

How much more ambitious?

At the very least, as ambitious as the greatest-reducing positions on greenhouse gas mitigation articulated within the official UNFCCC process. The range of positions is summarized in a “note by the chair” of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action Under the Convention which was released on March 18 in preparation for the Bonn meeting.

We used C-ROADS to calculate the likely results for the climate if the most ambitious proposals for developed countries contained in that summary (95% of 1990 levels by 2050) were to be combined with its most ambitious proposal for developing countries (25% of 2000 levels by 2050). This scenario is titled “Max FF” in the figure above. Under this scenario, atmospheric CO2 would stabilize in the range of 425 ppm and temperature increase would be in the range of 2.5C.

There are, of course, many important issues that must be resolved before the world’s nations agree to such ambitious levels of emissions reduction. Issues of technology sharing, finance, and the right to development must all be addressed. Taking the time to address these issues makes sense.

Neglecting these issues, because confusion about the required levels of emissions reductions keeps us from seeing the essential need for global cooperation to protect the climate, does not.

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13 Responses to Only the most ambitious emissions reductions under discussion within UNFCCC can achieve climate goals

  1. jorleh says:

    Looks grim. Are we going to manage the situation? With all these deniers, delayers and BAU – zombies? I think, no.

  2. Wonhyo says:

    One point of question: Is the most ambitious developed country plan 95% OF 1990 levels or 95% BELOW 1990? I though the IPCC recommendation was 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. I’ve suspected for a while that we need to reach 80% below 1990 levels long before 2050 to stabilize. Anyway….

    I’ve started leading climate change discussions at my church (because scientists alone cannot mobilize the populace). We saw a NASA lecture from a Greenland/Antarctica researcher who spent time on those glaciers.

    One of the more intellectual members of the group had a revelation after watching the lecture (with discussions of feedback cycles and lag times). The gentleman suddenly (and earnestly) asked, “Are we too late?”. I explained some effects are already “in the pipeline” but that we are not too late to stabilize, given a concerted and sustained effort to reduce GHGs.

    This should serve as a warning as to the possible range of reactions, once people realize how dire the situation is. Early adopters of climate science (most CP readers) display a rational, self-preservation response, calling for action to reduce GHGs. Late adopters of climate science may express a panic response, and give up (like the guy who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island).

    While scientists are doing a good job at climate science, social institutions, like the Church, and perhaps the psych therapy profession, need to mobilize and prepare to guide individuals and society through an orderly social response and adaptation to climate change.

  3. paulm says:

    Why do they keep thinking that we can make 2°C. Realistically we can’t.

    We need to recognize its going to be 3+°C and start planning for this.

    (BTW 2°C is not going to support 6billion people, as we can see what the effects are now and we haven’t even got above 1°C )

    Next couple of years will indicate if the methane feedback will kick in. And what is the probability of that now that we are going over 2°C – very likely to use the IPCC’s terms. I would say extremely likely.

    We have to think adaption and survival now as well as mitigation.

    (How does this data MaxFF figure on your GDP calculations Joe?)

  4. GFW says:

    >Next couple of years will indicate if the methane feedback will kick in.

    Paul, what make you say that? (And which methane feedback – northern soil release, hydrate discharge, other…) As a complete amateur, my impression is that we might have a decent prediction model for the northern peat soil release of methane as it warms/dries, but the hydrate deposits are a total wildcard – could blow out in a decade or could blow out in two centuries. I’m not saying I’m not concerned about the hydrates – I think they are implicated in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event – but I don’t think we have any handle on predicting a major hydrate blow out.

  5. This does look grim, yet it also provides a welcome focus for our attention: without action by major emitting developing countries 2°C are out of reach.

    The underlying analysis shows that developing countries — in particular, of course, China — need to move onto a high-efficiency, low-carbon development path.

    One proposal to achieve exactly that is the CLEAR path, short for “Carbon Limits + Early Action = Rewards.” EDF is presenting this proposal at the Bonn climate talks this Saturday (April 4, 13:00-15:00, Tram room).

    The CLEAR path proposal is a work in progress, and we welcome comments and suggestions. The latest version is an academic text focused on financing mechanisms: Docking into a global carbon market: Clean Investment Budgets to finance low-carbon economic development, by Gernot Wagner, Nat Keohane, Annie Petsonk and James Wang. This text will be published by Oxford University Press in the book The Economics and Politics of Climate Change later this year.

  6. ecostew says:

    When you look at the per capita emissions:

    I agree with paulm and am even a bit more pessimistic. It is most unfortunate the denier/delayers have caused such delay in terms of US/global response.

  7. Guy Dauncey says:

    Yes, it looks gloomy – but there is an acceleration of awareness around the urgency, which is slowly translating into stronger political will, stronger goals, and better delivery of results.

    I do believe that it is possible to achieve 100% reduction in emissions in the developed world by 2030, and in the developing world by 2040, based on a rigorous analysis of all available solutions for every sector.

    The climate movement is not yet “mature” in the way that the anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights were – this begins when there are the first mass arrests for major acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

  8. DB says:

    “I do believe that it is possible to achieve 100% reduction in emissions in the developed world by 2030”

    I’m not sure what experience would lead to this conclusion. For example, back at the turn of the century the UK set a goal of 10% of all electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2010. At the time they were generating 2.8% from renewables.

    By 2006 it was up to 4.6%. It is currently in the 6% range, with only 21 months left to go.

  9. Drew Jones says:

    Wonhyo wrote: One point of question: Is the most ambitious developed country plan 95% OF 1990 levels or 95% BELOW 1990?

    This is Drew Jones, who co-wrote the blog post with Beth Sawin. The proposed plan is 95% BELOW 1990 levels. Thanks for making the distinction.

    The corrected version is at:

    And the full paper is at:


  10. DB says:

    This article from Denver talks about a new solar installation at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science which came on line last summer. The 100 kW panels supply between 2% and 12% of the museum’s power.

    Interesting, the museum at first decided not to do the project because the $720,000 cost had a payback of 110 years. However, after state and federal subsidies the project became ‘profitable.’


  11. paulm says:

    GFW, for me anecdotal evidence, historic inference and intuition….

    Arctic meltdown is a threat to humanity

    …”I AM shocked, truly shocked,” says Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “I was in Siberia a few weeks ago, and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them.”

  12. Roger says:

    I agree that it’s time to go beyond the physical science inputs, to get the social science and medical folks involved in trying to get society moving on this issue. Why aren’t psychologists and doctors in the movement?

    Let’s face it: this is a problem unlike any ever faced! We can’t therefore expect our normal problem solving skills to work that well—and they don’t! (In fact, when you think further about it, few of our societal systems are geared to deal with a so-called ‘s-l-o-w emergency.’)

    Strange but true: yesterday I met an environmentalist who was a denier on climate change—a bright person who had never taken the time to make the distinction between climate and weather—and he couldn’t seem to accept the idea that he should look into it a bit futher. Frustrating!!