Beyond Durban: There’s More than One Way to Reduce Global Emissions

Required emission reductions for 2 degree Celsius pathway

by Rebecca Lefton, Andrew Light, Melanie Hart, and Adam James

It is clear that focusing on the international climate change negotiations process in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change alone is not enough to put us on a pathway to limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050, which is what scientists say we need to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. That’s why the Center for American Progress proposes a “multiple multilateralism” approach as a complement to the UNFCCC process.

This column introduces that approach, which identifies where emissions reductions can be realized in existing multilateral forums outside the UNFCCC. An upcoming CAP analysis expands on the approach and indicates the emissions reductions we could achieve through various paths outside the UNFCCC that can be harmonized with the goal of achieving climate safety.

But first, we will show why the UNFCCC’s reductions, even if successful and assisted by increased climate finance, will not get us where we need to be.

Emissions reductions under the UNFCCC pledges

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord—the agreement by the parties at that year’s UNFCCC meeting—introduced the goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It was finalized a year later in the Cancun Agreements. Parties that agreed with this goal were invited to pledge their national commitments to meeting this goal by 2020 that would be subject to external review. More than 80 countries responded.

These emissions reduction pledges can be divided roughly into two categories: the “low” and “high” Copenhagen scenarios. The low pledge scenarios are the reductions parties are willing to take on their own with no external cooperation or finance. The high pledge scenarios are the reductions parties are willing to take if certain conditions are met, such as financial help to increase that ambition.

CAP worked with Project Catalyst, a consulting group, to model the impacts of the Copenhagen pledges to see if they would get us on the 2 degree pathway by 2020. Assuming that business-as-usual emissions by 2020 will be 56 gigatons annually of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, we estimate that emissions would need to be reduced to 44 gigatons annually by 2020 to put the world on a plausible pathway to holding concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that stabilization at 450 parts per million gives us a 75 percent chance of holding temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius.)

Our analysis demonstrated that if both the high and low emission reduction pledges from Copenhagen were met, then two-thirds of the needed reductions would have been achieved by 2020 consistent with staying on a pathway to stabilize temperature at the 2 degree target by midcentury. This still leaves a gap of 4 gigatons (see chart above) between the ambitious estimates provided under maximum fulfillment of the Copenhagen Accord and the reductions required to get to 2 degrees.

Climate finance can help increase reductions

Finance will be needed to raise the ambitions of parties from the low Copenhagen pledges to the high Copenhagen pledges. And we believe the final gap between the pledges and a stabilization pathway can be bridged by scaling up additional finance for international climate aid.

Of the approximately 6.5 gigatons of reductions that are necessary to move from the low Copenhagen pledges to the 2 degree pathway, about 3.5 gigatons of those reductions must come from developing countries and will require financial support. Resources sufficient for 1 of these gigatons has been requested by various developing countries to move from their low Copenhagen scenarios to their high scenarios. The remaining 2.5 of these gigatons must also come from developing countries because these are the parties where the majority of emissions increases will be seen through this decade.

Consequently, our international climate finance commitments are even more critical for achieving emissions reductions by leveraging private finance for climate action in fast-rising greenhouse-gas-emitting developing countries.

During the December 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, developed countries made a commitment to $30 billion in “fast start” financing for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries from 2009 to 2012. At the U.N. climate summit in Cancun in December 2010, all parties also formally approved commitments to create a Green Climate Fund to mobilize large sums of money for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries and to raise $100 billion annually by 2020.

While this is a good start, we can’t simply wait out the rest of the decade, from the end of the fast start period in 2012 to the beginning of the Green Climate Fund in 2020, to scale up needed emission reduction programs in developing countries. The world needs a second phase of interim finance in order to maintain crucial investments that will be more costly if we wait to bridge this 2012-2020 gap.

In a Center for American Progress report last December with the Alliance for Climate Protection, we recommend a “ramp-up” period to increase public and private investment from 2013-2015. The report provides new mitigation and adaptation goals for developing countries by sector and specifies the increases in public and private investment necessary during a “ramp-up” period. We recommend that on top of the substantial and much greater amount of funds already being committed by developed and developing countries around the world to fight climate change, an additional $60 billion should be allocated between 2013 and 2015.

But among global concerns about economic growth and unemployment, and the European sovereign debt crisis, shoring up resources for international climate finance is a serious challenge. It is urgent, then, that in addition to looking for sources of climate finance to fill out the emerging Green Climate Fund, among other finance instruments, we should also look for other opportunities for lowering emissions through the rest of the decade to overcome the gigaton gap between emissions pledges made in the Copenhagen Accord and what would be needed to get on a 2 degree Celsius path by 2020.

… there will be no implementation of new binding emission targets until after 2020 [coming out of Durban].

The “multiple multilateralism” approach

Our review shows that, impressive as they are, the pledges made so far by the major emitters and the financial flows to developing countries are still not ambitious enough to put us on a pathway to the 2 degree target by 2020. In the almost certain absence of a binding framework inside the UNFCCC that brings in all major emitters by 2020, we need to look outside of the UNFCCC to find alternatives to achieve climate safety.

In an upcoming report, CAP identifies emissions reductions that can be realized through alternative existing multilateral frameworks outside of the UNFCCC to close the gap between the existing unilateral pledges we have tracked so far and the reductions needed by 2020 to put us on the 2 degree pathway.

We should be moving forward on a slate of less comprehensive multilateral agreements—either in terms of the number of parties involved or the sectors of the economy covered—that can close the gap between anticipated unilateral mitigation commitments by parties until 2020 and reductions in greenhouse gases needed to put us on a pathway to climate safety by the end of the century.

In the report, we focus on emission reductions possible from existing agreements—such as the G20 pledge on elimination of fossil fuel subsidies—and those that have only been proposed, such as mechanisms that might be available through sectoral agreements from the parties in the Major Economies Forum.

Below we give an overview of three key ongoing initiatives where significant reductions are possible: the Montreal Protocol, the Major Economies Forum, and the Arctic Council black carbon program.

Montreal Protocol HFC Proposal

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, or MP, has successfully and cost-effectively limited the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and hydrochloroflurocarbons, or HCFCs—mainly used as refrigerants—that have high ozone-depleting potential. The MP has already phased out more than 98 percent of 100 chemicals to protect and restore the ozone.

This phase-out was much cheaper than expected, even though options to replace ozone-depleting substances were not readily available at the time the MP was signed. But the majority of replacements for ozone-depleting substances have been hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, substances with high global warming potential. HFCs are hundreds to thousands of times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon.

HFCs are projected to double by 2020, in large part because they are being used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances and because of growing demand for the substance in developing countries for air conditioning and refrigeration.

Because the MP has successfully reduced pollutants in a cost-effective way but has led to the subsequent rise in HFCs, which are used as a substitute for ODS, the MP should now also limit HFCs.

Hydrofluorocarbon use will soar in developing and developed countries

The North American Amendment Proposal to Phase-Down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, introduced originally in 2009 and resubmitted again this year, would limit the total production of HFCs beginning in 2014 and reduce emissions 15 percent below baseline every three years over a 30-year period. The measure would result in the reduction of approximately 4 gigatons of the carbon dioxide equivalent through 2020 and 98 gigatons of the carbon dioxide equivalent through 2050.

There are separate baselines for Article 5 (developing) and Non-Article 5 (developed) parties, each based on historical data from 2005-2008. The baseline for Article 5 countries only accounts for historical HCFC consumption, whereas Non-Article 5 countries estimates historical HFC consumption in addition to HCFC consumption.

The proposal also limits HFC-23, a byproduct emission resulting from the production of HCFCs and HFCs that is primarily used as a refrigerant. HFC-23 is 14,800 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. The phasedown of HFC production and consumption and the reduction of HFC-23s would be funded by the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund.

Arctic Council black carbon agreement

The Arctic Council is a multilateral, intergovernmental forum of the eight arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States) for addressing environmental concerns and climate change impacts (which includes expanded maritime traffic and resource extraction) in the Arctic region.

In May 2011 the Arctic Council called on its member states to strengthen mitigation measures for black carbon via the Nuuk Declaration. Black carbon is the particulate matter (soot) emitted from inefficient fossil-fuel combustion via diesel or machine engines, cook stoves, and biomass (forest) burning. The council offered tighter regulations and mitigation measures for diesel transport, domestic heating, biomass burning, marine shipping, and gas flaring.

Black carbon is a short-lived climate forcer. Like HFCs, it does not stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2, but it can have a more intense impact on climate change, particularly in the Arctic, where it darkens snow and ice and makes those Arctic surfaces absorb heat instead of reflecting it. The Arctic Council estimates that short-lived climate forcers such as black carbon currently account for up to 40 percent of Arctic warming.

Reducing black carbon emissions is not a stand-in for reducing CO2, but it can slow warming in the medium term while the global community works to reduce CO2 emissions.

Thus far, the Arctic Council has not pursued a treaty or other binding commitment on black carbon—the council is currently focusing on elevating the discussion to a multilateral level to improve cooperation and to encourage individual states to take stronger mitigation action. It is possible that the council may consider more formal action in the future.

Regardless, if these efforts result in stronger member state regulations to reduce black carbon emissions, it could significantly slow Arctic warming.

Major Economies Forum

The Major Economies Forum, or MEF, was established in advance of the Copenhagen meeting to explore possible initiatives that can increase clean energy while reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Representing the 17 largest economies in the world, the MEF provides a unique platform for action that lies outside the traditional U.N. process.

On December 14, 2009, the MEF took its first steps toward accomplishing its goals through the creation of the Global Partnership for low carbon technologies to drive “transformational low-carbon, climate-friendly technologies.” The Global Partnership created 12 “technology action plans” that together chart a course that addresses more than 80 percent of the major economies’ energy sectors’ CO2 emissions reduction potential. They are not mandatory.

The technology action plans provided a springboard for countries to launch national initiatives while collaborating on best practices and sharing information. Spanning everything from energy efficiency to advanced vehicles, the action plans helped translate hypothetical emissions reduction scenarios into 11 concrete initiatives sponsored by the Clean Energy Ministerial. These initiatives bring together major economies representing more than 80 percent of emissions, and various nations have subsequently pledged to carry them out.

In our report, we will analyze the various emissions reductions scenarios contained in these action plans, and the different timelines and probabilities of success.

The MEF’s potential, however, has not yet been exhausted. In CAP’s forthcoming report we will examine other avenues for cooperation among the MEF partners that could potentially bring about additional emission reductions among the largest emitters on the planet as well as potentially create sources of climate finance to assist in low-carbon development in other countries.


The UNFCCC should not be seen as the only venue for addressing global warming. In a perfect world, a new global, legally binding instrument would be agreed upon and would exceed current pledges for emissions reductions.

… parties [did not] agree to binding emissions reductions before the end of this decade….

It is therefore critical that we start and strengthen other dialogues for developing solutions to global warming outside of the formal negotiations process.

There is much to be gained from harmonizing opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in existing multilateral forums beyond and in concert with the UNFCCC. We do not need a new international process to do this. The infrastructure already exists in other multilateral frameworks.

Some of these agreements—like the MEF—are already underway and can be expanded to take on new roles and new ambitions. Others can be broadened in scope to address climate change but have thus far been hindered by political constraints. The view that forums such as the Montreal Protocol are not appropriate for addressing greenhouse gas emissions must be answered and overcome.

Broadening the scope of existing multilateral frameworks and buttressing existing agreements can generate emissions reductions that will help fill the gap left open by the UNFCCC.

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst, Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow, Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst on China Energy and Climate Policy, and Adam James is a Special Assistant at American Progress. This article was originally published on the Center for American Progress website.

10 Responses to Beyond Durban: There’s More than One Way to Reduce Global Emissions

  1. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Oddly, most of the “abatement” must be done by poorer countries according to your chart. They might propose a different chart.

  2. rjs says:

    by focusing on emissions you’re only dealing with half the problem; i’ve always suspected that heating incidental to human activity might be a greater contributor to AGW than the greenhouse effect..

  3. A Jessen says:

    Suspected based on what, rjs? It appears that waste heat is considered relatively minor, at least in established science.

  4. Start Loving says:

    Friends, your response is so reasonable, so measured, so sane. Do you not see how insane that is? OMG, please do. As things stand, the young, who will hate us for what we do and don’t do today, 10, 20 years from now, will say, ‘HOW COULD THESE PEOPLE IN THE KNOW HAVE BETRAYED US BY BEING [BEHAVING] SO SANE??? THEY, THEY WERE THE PAN OF WATER THAT HEATED SO GRADUALLY THAT THE FROGS (THE BLIND MASSES) NEVER ‘SAW’ IN TIME WHAT WAS HAPPENING! Oh my goodness, I wish I saw the action, the campaign… that would save humanity. It isn’t there. At present, objectively, there are zero glimmers of hope. But if those like you retain your reasoned, placid, ‘sane’ appearance, NOTHING will be more responsible for we ‘frogs’ dying in the pan. I’ll continue to attempt to do my part of living Insane Humanity, our only hope. Our entire hope.

  5. nosoyyo says:

    I think it’s helpful to highlight areas we need to work outside the usual CO2, methane and deforestation targets, and other international agreements as paths to those goals. However, I think the treatment of the numbers in this post are not at all helpful to the discussion. Giving a target (44 gigatons) for an isolated year (2020) without showing the path before and after doesn’t make much sense when it’s the cumulative numbers that are important. Many people and groups have their own version of the pathway to 450 ppm. But also, Climate Tracker that Joe or Steven referred to this week, shows around 55 gigatons in 2020 as where we get in 2020 with all the current pledges on the table whereas here it’s BAU. It’s hard to figure out that discrepancy with the little info given.

    Most importantly, though, talking about additional steps to get us the other 4 Gt we need in the year 2020 is ignoring the big picture IMO. It’s ignoring the fact that a 75% chance is pretty low considering the stakes. And it’s not addressing the fact that if we go by the past, we should have absolutely no expectation that countries will meet their pledges — for emissions cuts or money, so we also desperately need that to change. Talking about the final 4 Gt (or 6.5 Gt)as if it’s currently a real number is inadequate. And applauding agreement for delay (yesterday’s comments) and suggesting that 2 degrees warming represents perfection (ask the people in the world dying with not quite 1 degree) don’t seem to me to be the best advocacy for countries to change their behavior. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be in this position. In a perfect world, we’d have leaders who fight for the chance to save humanity, not fight for the chance to pollute as much as possible, then get applauded because the most powerful refused to lead. I don’t think any sane person around the globe is expecting a perfect world.

    I agree with Pete Dunkelberg, it seems very strange (or not) that nearly all the abatement is supposed to come from developing countries.

  6. EDpeak says:

    It is a good thing you are not soft on the ‘progress’ (such as it is) so far:

    “Our review shows that, impressive as they are, the pledges made so far by the major emitters and the financial flows to developing countries are still not ambitious enough to put us on a pathway to the 2 degree target by 2020.”

    But you can and should go farther: you pointed out there is a “75% chance of success” to stay under 2C heating if 450ppm. That means, even assuming that estimate is not over-rosy, that were taking a huge 25% chance for what scientists say will be ‘dangerous’ effects. This fact needs to be repeated and restated for the public, not so we get depressed and go home, but so the public understands how mild even your own criticism is, versus what a truly protective (meaning far lower than 25% of dangerous change) position would be (and this is to speak nothing of other margins of error type risks e.g. maybe 1.8C rather than 2C there is ‘danger’ enough to humanity from the consequences)

    Secondly, many of us think that you’re also right on for expressing the need for actions in addition to UNFCCC…but also that this doesn’t go far enough.

    So long as we have a growth-based economic system (or systems) around the world, we are, _at_best_ swimming upstream. Yes, one can do _some_ upstream swimming, and can (not “guarantee” but “possibility of”) make headway, even when swimming upstream. But it’s hardly what the wise path is, increases significantly the risks of failure on any number of goals, and in any case is in the long run impossible to keep the perpetual exponential growth based economy anyway.

    While we’re listing what we need to go “beyond” let’s include looking into steady state economies.

    True, that won’t happen overnight even with a huge effort, but the string of growing disasters will unfold over the 9 decades ahead this century and beyond in the short(er) run, yes, augment UNFCCC with other venues as suggested here..but also get the ball rolling to ramp up as fast as possible dialogue, and then action, starting locally and growing to regionally and beyond, towards a better model(s) then the physically impossible and suicidal economic model we have today which builds in a “need” for exponential economic growth from here to infinity, on our finite planet..

  7. Tnioli says:

    Quote: “… you pointed out there is a “75% chance of success” to stay under 2C heating if 450ppm. That means, even assuming that estimate is not over-rosy, … ”

    Highly unfortunately, it is over-rosy. Massively over-rosy. As far as i know, more than 75% chance is that we will get above +2C to pre-industrial levels global warming even with current 390ppm CO2 (which is only possible if we’d stop burning fossils completely _today_), due to 1) global warming lag, which is estimated to be 20…35 years; it exists due to huge thermal capacity and correspondedly huge thermal inertia of the world ocean – for a time, ocean absorbs much of additional heat trapped by greenhouse gases like CO2, but the warmer ocean itself becomes, the more heat it gives back to land/athmosphere – it just takes that many years for the whole world ocean to increase its average temperature through all its layers; and 2) global dimming trap – currently, global warming is partially ofset by fine particles (soot, jet trails, etc) in the upper athmosphere; in a few years after global fossil fuel burning would be much reduced, amount of these particles up there will be much reduced as well, but CO2 (carbon dioxide) will stay in the athmosphere for centuries. That’s how there will be much further additional global warming “after we stop burning fossil fuels”. For the 1st, estimates are (as of 2010) about 1.3 +-0.5 degrees celcius of additional warming over present values by 2050. For the 2nd, effects are hard to estimate, but supposedly are about ~0.4…2.5 degrees celcius of additional global warming.

    There are very established papers clearly showing that upper safe limit of CO2 in the athmosphere is 350ppm, anything higher than that would not lead to catastrophic climate change only if present for very limited time (few years, maximum 2-3 decades). Again, we are now at 390ppm CO2. Currently there are no practically possible large-scale CO2 removal operations (all technologies in development so far are not fit for large-scale implementation).

    I do not see how talks about limitation of global warming to +2 degrees celcius could be serious today. Humanity needs to prepare for “very likely” unevitable catastrophic climate change to have any change of survival in any civilized form. Lots of preparation is being done in UK, Germany, China, USA. Some in Spain, Denmark. A bit in Japan. Pretty much rest of the world is still going in the wrong direction, and talks about limiting warming to +2C do not help at all, inducing – again, “very likely” that is, IPCC terms, – a false hope.

  8. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Reduction of Emissions is a Global issue and both Developed and Developing countries should look at from a holistic view and act accordingly.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  9. Sandy Gaines says:

    I agree with “multiple multilateralism”, especially the important early gains that can be made through aggressive black carbon and HFC reductions. It’s also true that most future gains in CO2 must come from developing countries because that’s where most of the emissions growth will be. But I tend to agree with Start Loving that your approach is too “sane”–that is, not nearly ambitious enough. The situation is urgent. Recent consensus is to get emissions to just 20% of current levels–about 11 GtCO2 vis-a-vis your BAU scenario. Getting only to 44 Gt by 2020 is a slow start–even if politically optimistic. But we desparately need to plan and invest NOW–not after 2020–to get from 44 to 11 in the following 20-30 years. What’s your plan?

  10. J4zonian says:


    Good points, but I have to disagree with one thing: there are in fact 4 programs I can think of offhand to sequester carbon in operation, ready to massively upscale. They are reforesting, veganism/vegetarianism, the local food movement and organic permaculture.

    Increasing the organic content of soil and the carbon held by trees will decrease the carbon in the atmosphere; this can be done by planting forests, switching from chemical ag to organic permaculture, and eating less meat. Permaculture uses, among other techniques:

    1. perennial grains like those being developed by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute, the Marin Carbon Project and others;

    2. perennial vegetables; and

    3. food forests, in which fruit and nut trees are spaced widely enough to allow sunlight in to support as many as 7 vertical levels of food, fiber, material, medicine and other production.

    Creating plant communities like (but more complex than) Native Americans’ 3+ Sisters (corn beans and squash to start), meets the needs of each crop with what the other plants and animals in the community supply, rather than human inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. And growing trees and other perennials rather than annuals reduces the fuel use, and soil disruption and out gassing caused by tilling, also reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides. The same with multi-cropping: more productive per acre than even the most intensive chemical monocultures, at far lower expense. This is somewhat made up for by higher labor needs, but in an era of destructively high unemployment isn’t that a good thing?

    And eating less meat and changing the way we raise meat by incorporating animals into permaculture systems would require less land, energy, water, fertilizer, pesticides… and cause fewer pollution problems like runoff into streams and ocean dead zones. Rainforest deforestation is largely for meat production now and that could stop. Our food production system is going to change whether we plan it or not; why not beat the rush and do it now, gradually, consciously, while it will do the most good?