The hopes that the world will do something meaningful to reduce its carbon emissions now hang on the next big round of international climate talks in Paris in 2015. And according to a new analysis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s probably going to be a letdown.
The Paris talks will be the twenty-first gathering of nations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the goal of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough to hold any rise in global temperatures under 2°C. At this point, very few public commitments have been made by any of the countries involved, so what deal could emerge in 2015 is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, the MIT researchers wanted to take a stab at a prediction, and see how close it could get the world to the 2°C goal.
First, they built a reference baseline on the assumption that the Paris talks fail utterly, leaving the world with the pledges for reductions by 2020 already made in previous talks. They then tried to anticipate what pledges countries would make in 2015, and how they would play out across a range of sectors including electricity generation, transportation, land use, methane emissions, and building efficiency. The researchers relied on “national communications, discussions with observers of conditions in various countries,” and — by their own admission — “a good deal of guesswork.” Finally, they ran the results through simulations to see how far those pledges would reduce GHG emissions from the reference baseline.
The results were less than encouraging:
The measurements are in “gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent” emissions, or “GtCO2-eq.” The green line, representing the expected 2015 pledges, is significantly lower than the reference baseline. But it’s still well short of the window — represented by the rectangles — that’s expected to keep the world below a 2°C temperature rise. (The blue line is an alternative in-between outlook from MIT, that assumes the pledges made prior to 2015 are adhered to even after the 2020 targets come and go.)
“That raises the question,” said Henry D. Jacoby, one of the study’s authors, “if it’s obvious in the early stages of the negotiation that we’re not getting on a path to temperature goals, what will be the nature of the follow-up process? We should be starting to have that discussion as well.”
There’s also the question of whether the pledges the MIT analysis anticipates will actually play out. The new federal rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants, for instance, are central to President Obama’s diplomatic efforts to build an international commitment to combat climate change. But the survival of that regulation faces some domestic opposition.
Rebecca Lefton, a senior policy analyst specializing in international climate change policy at the Center American Progress, pointed out that the UNFCCC isn’t the only international avenue available for curbing GHG emissions. The Arctic Council, for instance, could address black carbon — a pollutant that, on a pound-for-pound basis, drives thousands of times more warming than equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. And the Montreal Protocol can be used to cut Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — another GHG far more potent that carbon dioxide.
“A phasedown of HFCs in the Montreal Protocol can avoid 1.9 [GtCO2-eq] by 2020, and more than 95 [GtCO2-eq] by mid-century,” Lefton said.
“We can strengthen other dialogues for developing solutions to global warming outside of the formal negotiations process. We do not need a new international process to do this. The infrastructure already exists in other multilateral frameworks.”
One other point worth mentioning is how the anticipated GHG reductions by 2030 were distributed in the MIT analysis. Virtually all came from developed countries — such as the United States, Japan, and the European Union — along with other members of the G20 — Brazil, China, India and Mexico, among others.
In MIT’s analysis, virtually no reductions can be expected form the rest of the world, such as Africa, the Middle East, and the poorer parts of Asia and Latin America. That’s because of the extreme difficulty these countries will face trying to balance GHG cuts with the increases in energy consumption necessary to cut poverty. The MIT researchers point to the Green Climate Fund as one way the developed world could help less fortunate countries overcome that impasse, but they expect it to be insufficiently funded to make much of a difference.
“The low level of contribution from these nations reflects our expectation that they cannot anticipate substantial assistance from developed countries to help pay for emissions-mitigating expenditure,” the analysis concludes.