Climate Summit’s Urgent Goal: Cut More Emissions, Faster

A year after the landmark Paris climate agreement, negotiators gathering in Morocco for the next round agree pledges do not go far enough.

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Morocco's foreign minister Salaheddine Mozouar and French environment minister Segolene Royal kick off COP22
Morocco's foreign minister Salaheddine Mozouar and French environment minister Segolene Royal are full of smiles as the latest round of UN climate talks began on Monday in Marrakech.

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If there was one unifying principle as this year’s United Nations climate conference started in Marrakesh, Morocco on Monday, it was that the world needs to lift its ambition in fighting global warming.

Unless the world acts quickly, warned Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), “we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy.

“The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver,” he said last week as UNEP unveiled its annual “gap report” describing how far short the promises so far have fallen. “The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

“The world is not nearly on track,” agreed Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN climate negotiation body, in an essay co-authored with Morocco’s foreign minister and COP22 president, Salaheddine Mezouar.

The problem is simple: temperatures are increasing along with carbon dioxide emissions and its concentration in the atmosphere. Unless this changes in the next few years, the primary goal of the Paris Agreement, negotiated last year and put into effect last week, will drift out of reach in just a few years.

The goal is to limit global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees, to avoid the most severe impacts of global warming.

It has been clear all along that the pledges offered by those joining the Paris agreement are not adequate to achieve that. The first decision of COP21 last year stressed the urgency of accelerating action, and of taking additional steps well before 2020.

A new memorandum of advice for policymakers issued a few weeks ago by Espinosa’s science advisers said that even though the promises so far are “woefully short,” Paris had provided “significant momentum to build on.”

That memo, “Climate Action Now,” noted that the costs of clean energy are falling, lower oil prices open an opportunity for carbon taxes and the private sector is beginning to address climate risks.

It would be Pollyannish to think that this is all guaranteed.

“Pretending that these temperature goals are achievable was (and is) essential to the diplomatic process,” David Victor of the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent paper for the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

“It was politically feasible to agree on such bold, aspirational collective goals—even if they are largely unachievable—because no individual country needed to take responsibility for delivering,” he wrote. “Sometime soon the diplomatic community will need to face the reality that we need new, achievable, and more useful long-term goals.”

But the United States, China and other major nations continue to talk about increasing their ambition—although not necessarily as quickly or as stringently as the experts say may be required.

Jonathan Pershing, the new U.S. chief negotiator, has said he plans to describe the path the U.S. will follow to new higher ambitions—assuming that Hillary Clinton is elected president. (The initial U.S. pledge was to cut its emissions up to 28 percent by 2025.)

“At the moment, what we have from the world are commitments for 2025 or for 2030, but we know that by 2050 or certainly by the end of the century we’ve got to have deep de-carbonization,” he told reporters last week. “Twenty percent is not enough, 30 percent is not enough. We need to think about an 80 percent reduction or perhaps more.”

Industry and institutional investors, too, are going to have to do more. One survey of hundreds of companies found that they have put in place plans to cut 1 trillion tons of emissions, but that to reach the goals of Paris they would have to cut 4 trillion tons.

“This gap is equal to nearly 50 percent of these companies’ current total emissions,” said the report, by CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project.
A review published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that meeting the 2 degree target “requires drastic changes in the global energy mix.”
“From an economic perspective, it is not a question of whether we can do it, but at what cost,” it said. “We clearly have very low and virtually zero-carbon options.”
Many economists say the costs can be substantially reduced if many nations put a price on carbon, such as with a carbon tax or cap-and-trade.
A study by the World Bank and Ecofys found that an international market for carbon emissions could reduce the cost of delivering the needed cuts by between a third and a half.
Even though the current promises are not enough to fully meet the goals, they are already opening up big new markets for clean energy.
A study of pledges made by 21 emerging economies projected that there’s potential for $16 trillion of investments in green buildings in East Asia and the Pacific, $2.5 trillion in efficient transportation in Latin America, and so on.
“There has never been a better time than now for climate-smart investing,” said Philippe Le Houérou, executive vice president of the International Finance Corporation, a unit of the World Bank.
Experts say that while the technologies for 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of warming are similar, to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees would require reaching net zero emissions one or two decades earlier.
According to the World Resources Institute, it’s unlikely that Marrakech will determine how this is going to happen; instead, it will set in motion detailed plans for a 2018 meeting “to serve as a springboard for enhanced action, including new or updated national climate plans.”

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