Fifty-five countries met the Copenhagen Accord's Jan. 31 deadline for committing to national emissions reductions targets, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change announced today. There were no surprises in the targets submitted, and there is a general consensus that even if all those targets are met, averting a rise in global temperature of more than 2 degrees Celsius is all but impossible.
The strongest commitments came from some of the world's smallest countries, like the Maldives. The low-lying island nation, at great risk from rising sea levels, set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2020.
The United States submitted a target of cutting its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, "in conformity" with targets to be set by Congress. That equates to about 4 percent below 1990 levels. The 27-nation European Union pledged to reduce emissions 20 percent below its 1990 levels, increasing that to 30 percent if other countries agree to binding targets. Australia also made its target contingent on other countries, with an unconditional 5 percent below 2000 levels and as much as 25 percent with global participation.
Among developing nations, India and China both affirmed their pledges to lower their carbon intensity, or carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product — China at 40 to 45 percent of 2005 levels, and India at 20 to 25 percent of 2005 levels. Brazil repeated a pledge it signed into law to reduce emissions as much as 20 percent below 2005 levels.
But all these promises combined will not slow warming to the extent needed to avoid the most drastic and damaging effects of climate change.
"The Copenhagen Accord, whatever that ends up being, is not going to be enough to avoid two degrees," said John-Michael Cross, a research associate at the Climate Institute. "There seems to be not a lot to it at the moment: a lot of pretty language but not a lot of numbers, and it doesn't really seem to provide a good strategy to get us where we need to go."
Three separate reports in December analyzed the proposed emissions cuts compared to the amounts necessary to stay below 2 degrees and found gaps of anywhere from two to eight gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. The entire global emissions output needs to come down from a projected total of almost 60 gigatons to the range of 40 to 44. Even if the high end of all the submitted targets are met, that gap will not close completely.
If the international negotiations process is, at least for the moment, falling flat, then how can the world meet the goals truly needed to keep the world below 2 degrees C?
Education and Leadership
The first answer is to keep working toward a legally binding agreement late this year at the next major meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, COP16 in Mexico City.
If the United States changes its strategy in the coming months, it could have beneficial results, said Kyle Ash, a policy analyst at Greenpeace.
"I'm not as pessimistic as other people are leading up to Mexico," he told SolveClimate. "In the past, the president signs a treaty and then advocates for the position at home. That's the element that we're not seeing yet, [President Obama] is not campaigning publicly for climate policy. If he did that, that would be the wild card that would really change things politically in the U.S., and therefore the international climate debate as well."
With this in mind, Greenpeace — which issued a statement condemning the weak targets affirmed to the UNFCCC — is focusing on education surrounding some specific climate-related issues, including ocean acidification and what Ash called the "myth of clean coal."
"It would be interesting to see the Pentagon come out and join that discussion," Ash said. "They have stated publicly that climate change is a huge national security problem. I think them helping to educate the public on climate policy would be very helpful. It could change things on a dime."
The Pentagon did exactly that on Monday, releasing its Quadrennial Defense Review that for the first time included an assessment of climate change's effects on national security. According to the review, "while climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world."
Look Beyond CO2
Cross, of the Climate Institute, shared the view that changing the educational and campaign messages could lead to better international response to climate change. He suggested an increased focus on shorter term emissions problems than carbon dioxide, such as black carbon, and on methane, which can also play a big role in global temperature changes.
Black carbon is essentially soot sent into the atmosphere by natural forest fires, the steel and brick-making industries, diesel fuel emissions and stoves used for cooking in the developing world. Although not a greenhouse gas (the fine particles of black carbon spend only about two weeks in the atmosphere, compared with 12 years for methane and up to hundreds of years for CO2), it offers an intriguing target to slow warming in the coming years, Cross said, and may not carry the same degree of political weight seen with carbon dioxide negotiations.
"It is not as directly tied into economic growth as CO2 is," Cross said.
China and India, however, are reluctant to let black carbon into the international negotiations, as it might appear to shift the blame from the centuries of carbon dioxide emissions by the developed world to a shorter term problem in the developing countries. Turning the focus toward black carbon, though, could at least slow the short-term warming likely to be seen in the next 20 to 30 years.
Influence of industry
With the international negotiations process struggling, increased scrutiny on the industry and business side of climate change could also swing opinions. Last week, the SEC issued a guideline requiring publicly traded companies to report business risks and opportunities related to climate change.
Jim Coburn, a senior manager at environmental investment NGO Ceres, said that while national and international agreements can obviously change the way industry and business is conducted, the opposite could also be true.
"I think the biggest influence on the political discourse nationally is what companies are asking for, what they're asking Congress for and what they're willing to support," he said. "On the national front it's very important, because it affects how some members of Congress view climate change legislation, and how it will affect industry and jobs."
Some groups still think the targets set out by the Copenhagen signatories represent a great first step.
"What is it that the international agreement is supposed to ultimately do?"
asked Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Produce a 20-page legal text that tells everybody what they should do, or create the framework that encourages countries to do actions at home? I would rather have the latter than a treaty that has nobody actually doing anything. A treaty without actions is a meaningless effort."
The NRDC is focusing its post-Copenhagen efforts on tracking the pledges that have been affirmed to the UNFCCC, and making sure that countries are on the right track toward meeting those goals. The group launched a new web site with that aim in mind. Progressing the goals forward to better address the need to stay below 2 degrees, Schmidt said, will have to follow in the coming months and years.