Why a Global-Warming Pact Won’t Stop Global Warming

How should success at high-stakes international talks be measured?

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world's largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant, so called 'clean coal,' which will store around 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year 2,1 kilometers (7,200 feet) underground.
Ben Geman
Aug. 7, 2014, 8:42 a.m.

Don’t ex­pect too much from the glob­al cli­mate-change ac­cord that’s ex­pec­ted to emerge from high-stakes in­ter­na­tion­al talks in Par­is next year.

A new MIT study con­cludes that even if ne­go­ti­at­ors reach a deal at the United Na­tions con­fer­ence, it prob­ably won’t be enough to lim­it glob­al tem­per­at­ure in­creases to 2 de­grees Celsi­us above pre-in­dus­tri­al levels. That’s the level many sci­ent­ists say would help stave off some of the most dan­ger­ous and dis­rupt­ive ef­fects of cli­mate change.

Here’s the study’s bot­tom line on what to ex­pect from the so-called Con­fer­ence of the Parties 21 in Par­is: “Based on our ex­pect­a­tions for the ar­chi­tec­ture of a COP-21 agree­ment, and our pre­dic­tions about the na­tion­al con­tri­bu­tions likely to come forth un­der it, our ana­lys­is con­cludes that these in­ter­na­tion­al ef­forts will in­deed bend the curve of glob­al emis­sions. However, our res­ults also show that these ef­forts will not put the globe on a path con­sist­ent with com­monly stated long-term cli­mate goals,” states the pa­per by eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or Henry Jac­oby and Y-H Henry Chen, who both work with MIT’s Joint Pro­gram on the Sci­ence and Policy of Glob­al Change.

The 2°C ceil­ing has been highly op­tim­ist­ic for a while, as glob­al green­house-gas emis­sions con­tin­ue to soar.

In a ma­jor re­port last year, the United Na­tions In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change modeled the im­pact of a series of pos­sible emis­sions tra­ject­or­ies. Run­away emis­sions growth could fur­ther boost tem­per­at­ures, at the high end of the es­tim­ates, by up to 4.8 °C by 2100, the IP­CC es­tim­ated. Only the most ag­gress­ive of the emis­sions-cut­ting path­ways that re­search­ers modeled—in which car­bon di­ox­ide sta­bil­izes in the at­mo­sphere at around 450 parts-per-mil­lion (it’s now at 400 and climb­ing)—would be “likely” to stay be­low the 2 de­gree tar­get, the IP­CC pre­dicts.

So the new MIT pa­per raises a ma­jor ques­tion loom­ing over emis­sions pledges that na­tions will make early next year and for the Par­is talks them­selves: How should suc­cess be meas­ured?

Robert Stav­ins, a Har­vard Uni­versity ex­pert on in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate ne­go­ti­ations, said the good news is that the MIT study pre­dicts the Par­is ac­cord will be suc­cess­ful in chan­ging the glob­al emis­sions tra­ject­ory as na­tions world­wide pledge to act on pol­lu­tion tar­gets.

“You can view their res­ults as say­ing there is a half-full glass of wa­ter,” said Stav­ins, dir­ect­or of the Har­vard En­vir­on­ment­al Eco­nom­ics Pro­gram.

While the 2°C tar­get is a goal of the ne­go­ti­ations, he said the struc­ture of the agree­ment that’s shap­ing up is im­port­ant in oth­er ways that will mark a vast im­prove­ment over the ex­ist­ing Kyoto Pro­tocol. This is the 1997 treaty the U.S. nev­er joined, Canada has aban­doned, Ja­pan won’t meet, and in­cludes no com­mit­ments from de­vel­op­ing na­tions at all.

Stav­ins com­pared the tricky work of glob­al-emis­sions agree­ments to try­ing to build a 70-story sky­scraper. Kyoto began con­struc­tion but didn’t cre­ate a found­a­tion that’s any­where close to broad enough, he said.

The emer­ging ar­chi­tec­ture of the hoped-for Par­is deal will be very dif­fer­ent. In­stead of a form­al treaty with bind­ing emis­sions agree­ments from a sub­set of na­tions, all coun­tries are ex­pec­ted to de­term­ine their own pledges on how much they will curb emis­sions.

Stav­ins pre­dicted that ini­tial emis­sions pledges that na­tions make will not be very am­bi­tious, and that this will lead some people to be dis­ap­poin­ted when they add up the emis­sions curbs. But Stav­ins said what’s more im­port­ant than wheth­er these ini­tial pledges are a path­way to the 2°C tar­get is cre­ation of a found­a­tion for coun­tries to jointly act on cli­mate, un­like the re­l­at­ively nar­row set of na­tions covered un­der Kyoto.

He said the struc­ture that’s emer­ging in re­cent years is prom­ising. “That policy ar­chi­tec­ture should be judged in terms of wheth­er it is a found­a­tion for long-term pro­gress,” he said. “It makes me vastly more op­tim­ist­ic about a 70-story build­ing be­ing con­struc­ted when you start with the right found­a­tion.”

In ef­fect, what’s ex­pec­ted to emerge is a softer type of pact that’s not a form­al treaty but does bring all the big pol­luters on board, in­clud­ing China, which now emits the most green­house gases in the world. The MIT pa­per also poin­ted out that a form­al treaty would not be able to clear the U.S. Sen­ate any­way.

In­ter­im U.N. cli­mate talks in 2011 in Durb­an, South Africa, pro­duced what is known as the Durb­an Plat­form, which is a road map for an ac­cord that takes ef­fect in 2020 and has, at the very least, “leg­al force.” But that’s a rather flex­ible term.

The MIT pa­per pre­dicts that in Par­is next year, “Ne­go­ti­ations will fo­cus on loosely har­mon­ized do­mest­ic ac­tions in a sys­tem of pledged con­tri­bu­tions, with some sys­tem of ex-post re­view. Since a leg­ally bind­ing agree­ment on emis­sions tar­gets is un­likely to oc­cur, the Durb­an Plat­form spe­cific­a­tion of an agreed out­come with leg­al force could only re­quire man­dat­ory par­ti­cip­a­tion in a pro­cess to re­view pro­gress in achiev­ing pledged con­tri­bu­tions.”

Coun­tries in­clud­ing the U.S. are slated to re­veal their post-2020 emis­sions pledges early next year.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists will be look­ing for ag­gress­ive cuts from pol­lut­ing na­tions. Green­peace, for in­stance, has said the “road map” for a deal should in­clude pledges strong enough to meet the 2 °C tar­get, or a even a 1.5 °C tar­get.

Jam­ie Henn, a cofounder of the ag­gress­ive ad­vocacy group 350.org, noted, “Lim­it­ing glob­al warm­ing be­low 2°C, which is already a dan­ger­ous amount, is the one con­crete tar­get that sur­vived the Copen­ha­gen train wreck.” That’s a ref­er­ence to the frac­tious, late-2009 cli­mate talks in Copen­ha­gen that nearly dealt a mor­tal blow to the U.N. ne­go­ti­at­ing pro­cess be­fore a hast­ily craf­ted in­ter­im plan was salvaged.

“Giv­ing up on 2°C would be an act of in­ex­cus­able cow­ardice,” he said.

But Peter Frum­hoff, dir­ect­or of sci­ence and policy at the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists, said it’s vi­tal for poli­cy­makers to pre­pare for high­er tem­per­at­ures even while seek­ing strong ac­tions to cut emis­sions.

“We need to … pre­pare for the fact that we are likely to go bey­ond 2°C and think about what that im­plies for man­aging the risks of an in­ar­gu­ably dan­ger­ously warm­ing cli­mate,” he said in an in­ter­view. “We need to stop treat­ing a defin­it­ive an­swer around 2°C as the sole met­ric by which we meas­ure our suc­cess around cli­mate.”

“The 2°C tar­get is a ter­rific­ally im­port­ant, am­bi­tious polit­ic­al tar­get in­formed by sci­ence but also in­formed by our val­ues. We need to both treat Par­is and bey­ond as op­por­tun­it­ies to mar­shal our com­mit­ments to re­duce emis­sions as am­bi­tiously as pos­sible and pre­pare for the hard choices for a world that may warm well bey­ond it,” Frum­hoff said.

Jac­oby pre­dicted that the Par­is agree­ment will be a “step in the right dir­ec­tion,” but that poli­cy­makers should be ready to ex­plore what’s next if na­tions’ pledges aren’t a re­cipe for stay­ing with­in the 2°C tar­get.

“[Our] ex­pect­a­tion is that the pledges will not put the world on the path to meet the ex­ist­ing goals for lim­it­ing tem­per­at­ure change. We see emis­sions in­creas­ing through 2030 and, without ad­di­tion­al in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment, con­tinu­ing to in­crease in the fol­low­ing dec­ades,” he said in com­ments pub­lished along­side the study.

“That raises the ques­tion, if it’s ob­vi­ous in the early stages of the ne­go­ti­ation that we’re not get­ting on a path to tem­per­at­ure goals, what will be the nature of the fol­low-up pro­cess? We should be start­ing to have that dis­cus­sion as well.”

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