At a news conference in Lima where scientists showed that 2014 is likely to be the hottest year ever, the United Nations' top climate official said out loud what has been on everybody's minds as treaty negotiations creep forward.
It is "very clear" that countries' pledges on carbon emissions won't be ambitious enough to tip the world into a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, said Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
"The sum total of all the national contributions on the table today—and coming on the table next year—will not be able to get us to that tipping point, and certainly not to close the [emissions] gap" between pledges and the UN's goals, she said.
So this month in Lima, she said, the negotiators have to answer two questions:
"How do we increase the ambition, speed and scope [of countries' commitments] so that we can answer the call of urgency of the science?"
"How over time do we construct a process whose purpose is to diminish constantly the gap between where we ought to be and where we are?"
The answers may lie in a process of declarations and assessments that climate specialists have come to call an "ex ante" review of each nation's climate pledges.
Here's how it's supposed to work:
By the end of March 2015, each nation will spell out in detail what it's willing to do to address the problem of climate change. These pledges are known as "individually determined national contributions," or INDCs.
It's like the start of a poker game, when the players "ante up."
But in this case, not everybody is tossing in similar chips.
China's ante will be a promise that its emissions intensity—or its carbon pollution per unit of economic production—will peak by 2030. The United States will pledge by 2025 to reduce its absolute emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels. European nations will explain how each plans by 2030 to meet the EU targets, which call for 40 percent reductions from 1990 levels, as well as goals for energy efficiency and the use of renewables. Costa Rica says it can eliminate net carbon emissions by 2021. Some nations will offer much less. Some say they are so poor they shouldn't have to make any such promises.
So between now and the end of next year when a final climate treaty is supposed to be approved in Paris, climate negotiators are going to have to figure out if those pledges are adequate—and what the treaty should demand if they're not.
The Immediate Tasks
To that end, the negotiators in Lima face an immediate two-fold task.
First, they have to agree on the form of each INDC – the building blocks of each nation's pledge. They needn't all be cut from the same pattern, but it's important to make them all transparent and verifiable.
Second, and arguably more important, the negotiators have to figure out the process for reviewing and adding up the various national commitments.
Assembling and judging the commitments is an arduous process that will play out all next summer and perhaps won't be completed until negotiators are packing their bags for Paris. This is what is meant by the "ex ante" review.
It gets that fancy Latin name because like the initial poker pot, it has to start building at the outset, well before the ink is dry on the final treaty.
A new study of the ex-ante process sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers sets forth in detail what it will take to get "From Lima to Paris, and Beyond," as the paper is called.
The hope, it says, is to produce "a more rigorous outcome in Paris than there was in Copenhagen, where pledges were submitted without any upfront criteria." The 2009 Copenhagen talks produced little but half-baked promises—some of which, like so many pie crusts, have since been broken.
But first, the questions that have to be settled in Lima are many and complicated.
How detailed will the guidance be that steers nations as they make their pledges? Will different standards apply to the rich and the poor?
How will the adequacy of pledges be measured?
Who will do the judging – nations themselves, an outside arbitrator, a committee of the UNFCCC, a hodge-podge of think tanks and green groups?
How much of this must be completed by the end of next year, how much between 2015 and 2020 when the treaty enters into force, and how much later on?
Panic Not Yet Warranted
Just figuring out the math to compare various pledges is complicated, but it shouldn't be impossible. The World Resources Institute has designed a tool it calls the Mitigation Goal Standard, and in the next few months it is holding training sessions all over the world to instruct nations in its use. WRI's experts will be deeply involved in assessing various nations' INDC pledges next year.
In her remarks in Lima, Figueres explained why people shouldn't panic when the ex ante process inevitably reveals that the pledges being made this year and next are falling short.
Like a poor grade on a midterm exam, that will be a signal to step up commitments—preferably before Paris, but if need be during the series of post-Paris revisions of the goals, which the treaty would arrange to occur every five or 10 years.
"We have made an enormous effort over the years to bridge the gap between science and policy and bring them closer and closer together, because policy must follow science," Figueres said at a briefing where the World Meteorological Organization presented findings on this year's record temperatures.
"The urgency comes from the data that we have just seen," she continued. And the urgency, she explained, is to reach "the turning point or the tipping point" where the entire world's emissions peak, hopefully within 10 years, "and then begin a rapid descent."
But she went on to warn of "the gradual nature of the decarbonization process, so that even when we are able to get to that tipping point...it will also take a certain period of time to be able to decarbonize the development pathways, in particular in developing countries."
So the draft being negotiated, Figueres said, must set forth a plausible, collaborative way to "close the gap over time, the gap between where we are in greenhouse gas emissions and where science will continue to tell us that we have to be."