The agreement that emerged from December’s U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen continues to attract support from a growing number of nations despite naysayers who still insist that the meeting ended in failure. A recent Reuters article shows that there are now 110 countries on board, including the world’s major carbon emitters, representing more than 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions:
These countries’ collective commitments will not yet achieve the accord’s stated goal of holding temperature rise over pre-industrial levels at 2 degrees Celsius, but achieving these commitments could hold us to a 3-degree increase rather than the 4.8 degree rise we would see by 2100 under a business as usual scenario. These commitments also represent a vital first step toward achieving the 2-degree goal. These commitments bring us a bit less than 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent shy of the reductions needed to stabilize temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels assuming that countries succeed in meeting the high end of the goals they have set for themselves and also that commitments tied to other countries’ comparable efforts go forward.
So how do we achieve the remaining reductions needed to achieve climate safety? The first step in this process is to make the Copenhagen accord binding in order to lock in the reduction commitments, and the second is to increase the ambition of those parties that have signed onto the accord:
Make The Copenhagen Accord Binding. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon previously pledged to shift the Copenhagen Accord from a political agreement to a legally binding agreement by the next U.N. climate summit in Cancun, Mexico this December. U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern has agreed that we should be moving toward a legal agreement this year. Most participants in the process believe that the 2010 meeting in Cancun should at least include a discussion of how to make the accord legally binding by the 2011 meeting in South Africa if it cannot be made legally binding before then.
Increase The Ambition. The easiest way to increase the ambitions of countries signing onto the accord is to fix one of the biggest holes in the agreement: the lack of any emission reduction targets for those parties signing on. This gap is in sharp contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, which did include such targets. Reduction targets for developed and developing countries, starting with the 17 to 20 largest emitters responsible for almost 80 percent of emissions globally, should be the first priority. This would bring us closer to the overall temperature goal of the accord than simply increasing the number of parties signing onto it since the countries that have not yet made commitments collectively represent a tiny fraction of global emissions.
Any emission reduction targets added to the Copenhagen Accord will have to conform to the 2 degree Celsius temperature target that is part of the accord. As such, additional emission targets would need to aim to close the 5-gigaton gap from the current Copenhagen pledges if this figure does, in fact, represent the reductions needed to achieve the 2 degree Celsius target for climate safety. If it turns out that we need to achieve greater additional reductions than 5 gigatons, then we should do so.
The United States can make the needed reductions, but it would be a big help if Congress were to pass legislation like the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would achieve overall emissions reductions greater than the current U.S. pledge of 17 percent cuts below 2005 levels by 2020. The direct set aside in ACES for international forestry programs—which is separate from the allowable forestry offsets in the bill—could alone achieve 750 megatons of reductions annually by 2020. But if emissions reduction programs like this are eliminated in a Senate bill, then these additional reductions would be difficult to achieve, even if the bill is ultimately successful. Those interested in a global agreement on achieving climate safety will therefore have to work hard to make sure that Senate legislation is structured so that it generates revenue to pay for such programs.
One good outcome of Copenhagen is that the accord is still a work in progress. Our calculations of what can be achieved by current pledges under the accord are not final. They can still be improved. It doesn’t make sense to worry that the commitments made so far put us on a disastrous pathway to a world 3, 4, or more degrees warmer. That would only be a legitimate worry if the Copenhagen Accord had been finalized last December as a legally binding document at the current level of commitments. Instead, we still have time to use the accord to get us to a safer world.