As we approach the Paris climate talks, attention is turning to the offers on the table from various countries. As you may remember, in order to overcome the interminable arguments over binding carbon cuts, the last big climate conference did away with them altogether. Instead, countries would put forward their own ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’, or INDCs, and declare them in time for Paris.
INDCs have allowed countries to think about their own special circumstances – whether they need further development, what natural resources they have available and so on – and choose a suitable target rather than have one imposed on them. Some would be more generous to themselves than others, needless to say, but ideally the sum total of INDCs would get us close to being able to stabilise the climate.
Now that most countries have shown their hand, we are able to assess what the potential impact will be, and what outcomes we might expect from the Paris talks.
The first positive of this round of talks is that both the US and China have shifted significantly since the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009. Both have submitted targets that are serious, if not ambitious – but the most important thing is that they are no longer in opposition to each other and out to sabotage a deal. The INDC process does seem to have got us past that particular impasse.
Another positive is that some countries have set the bar admirably high for themselves. Ethiopia continues its legacy of climate leadership by planning to double the size of its economy while holding emissions steady – a clear vision for post-carbon development. Moldova aims for a 64-67% reduction on 1990 levels, a bolder offer than its neighbours. Bhutan intends to be carbon neutral, Papua New Guinea eyes 100% renewable energy by 2030.
Costa Rica has set its sights on being carbon positive by 2100, and has one of the only INDCs to offer a per-capita target that would hit a true one-planet share – 2 tonnes per capita (by 2050) would be an equal share of the carbon budget across a population of 9 billion. Tajikistan also hits this long term goal, and Armenia is very close.
These targets don’t necessarily deliver much decarbonisation themselves – Moldova or Bhutan’s footprints pale into insignificance alongside the world’s biggest emitters. But what they can do is up the ante for everybody else. They push the world’s bigger powers to step up, and overcome the ‘I won’t if you won’t’ dynamic that has seen most countries pitch contributions in a similar ballpark, unwilling to end up ahead of the pack and at a potential disadvantage.
Others are doing the minimum to keep up with the process, it has to be said. Japan’s proposed cut of 26% by 2030 looks okay, but countries are able to set the baseline year. Japan chose 2013, a record year for emissions and therefore a more modest cut than it appears. Russia is preoccupied elsewhere and isn’t pulling its weight. If we take historical emissions into consideration, things look a lot worse – the US and the EU carbon cuts don’t come anywhere near a ‘fair share’ if past development is considered. The climate leadership previously shown the Maldives seems to have evaporated with changes of government.
Because countries can frame their contributions anyway they like, some have given themselves loopholes in advance, adding conditions, or leaving language vague. Several, including South Korea, promise reductions on business as usual emissions rather than an absolute cut. One in ten INDCs don’t even include a target, but just offer a variety of actions the government intends to take. And not everyone hit the October deadline, including some fairly large stakeholders such as Pakistan and Nigeria.
But the important thing is that once everyone’s contributions are added up, it will be enough to keep warming below 2 degrees. And the bad news there is that it won’t – not even close. As this graph from Climate Tracker shows, there is a huge ‘emissions gap’ between what’s needed and what’s being offered.
The blue bar there is projected emissions, with the green areas showing where we need to be. The current pledges in the pink bar don’t even get us onto a downward trajectory, let alone onto the kind of decarbonisation pathway that would keep the world below 2 degrees of warming.
So there isn’t enough on the table to stop dangerous climate change at this stage, but the prospects for the Paris talks are more positive than they have been. With the US and China now constructive rather than obstructive, real discussion is possible. Developed and developing nations are no longer set against each other. At the same time, the economics of energy is shifting fairly decisively in favour or renewable energy. Arguments for the postcarbon transition are mounting.
The Paris talks are unlikely to strike the killer blow against climate change, but we’re over 20 years into this process and we should know that by now. There may well be progress, but halting climate change remains a task for all of us, as individuals, families, communities, towns and cities, and businesses.