A Global Village
Issue 3 » Energy & Environment

Making Progress On Climate Change

Dr. Simon Buckle, Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London

It’s that time of the year again. Northern Europe gripped by unusually severe winter weather while international negotiators meet to tackle climate change. It’s reminiscent of 2009, when political drama at Copenhagen was heightened by extreme winter weather and controversies over climate science. In retrospect, the 2009 weather was a regional anomaly in the second warmest winter in 130 years. But at the time it contributed to the “perfect storm” for climate science and policy. The current cold weather over Northern Europe is equally anomalous.

None of last year’s controversies weakened the key conclusions of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, namely: (a) warming of the climate system is unequivocal and (b) most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to man-made emissions. Climate change therefore remains one of the major policy challenges of the 21st century, and one with potential to amplify other major problems, such as development.

Why is effective mitigation action so difficult? I think there are two distinct but interlinked aspects of this problem: the first is economic and technological and the second strategic and political. Fossil fuels were the basis of the Industrial Revolution and remain central to the way of life in much of the world. Energy from fossil fuels has, excluding environmental costs, been cheap and plentiful, encouraging inefficient energy systems, short-sighted planning and an ever expanding appetite for energy services. These features have now become hard-wired into so many economies that decarbonising our energy systems in the relatively short space of time available to avoid the risk of potentially large-scale change in the climate system has become extremely difficult, soon perhaps bordering on infeasible. It will also be costly, with recent modelling suggesting costs of perhaps two or three percent of (discounted) GDP over the next century to achieve a 2°C target.

Carbon Budget
We now understand that it is the cumulative level of CO2 emissions that is critical in determining the peak warming response of the climate system. In effect, we have a certain carbon budget for the next century corresponding to the particular level of global temperature change that we are willing to tolerate. The higher the temperature change we judge acceptable, the greater is the corresponding carbon budget, and vice versa.

The unused portion of the carbon budget corresponding to peak warming of 2°C has been estimated at around 1,800 billion tonnes of CO2, corresponding to about 60 years of fossil fuel-related emissions at current levels. This is an incredibly short period in which to transform the global energy system and of course neglects emissions from deforestation and land-use change, which make the situation even more challenging.

So there is a clear policy imperative to accelerate the demonstration and large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies and negative emissions technologies that can suck CO2 from the atmosphere. But the effectiveness of mitigation action by any single country or group of countries is dependent on the response to this by the rest of the world. Competitiveness and other concerns appear to have limited the extent of costly mitigation action in a world where mitigation effort is uneven.

We have a certain 
carbon budget
corresponding to
the level of global
change we are
willing to tolerate

Even if the developed economies reduced their greenhouse gas emissions virtually to zero by 2050, this would not in itself solve the climate problem. The International Energy Agency’s Baseline scenario projects a massive increase of global energy-related CO2 emissions from around 30 billion tonnes to 57 billion tonnes by 2050, over a third of which would be due to China and India alone. The major developing economies cannot therefore continue carbon-intensive growth trajectories for much longer without increasing the risks of large-scale change.

The Right to Emit
A globally agreed mitigation target creates a scarce resource – the right to continue to emit an amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. To make such a target operational requires agreement on two things: the level of the global carbon budget and on how it is to be allocated amongst countries. This of course is the huge political stumbling block that has bedevilled climate negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol’s top-down targets and timetables have proved completely ineffective as a response.

To overcome the inherent difficulty of negotiating effective mitigation targets within the UN process, there have been several efforts to establish complementary and alternative negotiation tracks, such as the US Major Economies Forum. It seems likely that mitigation negotiations in future will become much more like arms control negotiations, involving just the key emitting economies rather than all UN member states. Though the timescales over which the impacts of climate change unfold are much longer than the instantaneous damage from a nuclear exchange, each large emitter increasingly recognises that others’ decisions can inflict serious harm, either in terms of climate impacts or through spillovers from the climate to the trade agenda, and that it will need to engage directly with them to manage these risks and safeguard national interests.

While there are clear incentives to negotiate, a successful outcome is not guaranteed. The trade-off between the short-term economic benefits of fossil-fuel use and the risks of long-term climate damages will differ between (and within) countries. If a particular large emitter turns out to be insulated from major climate impacts then the rest of the world will have difficulty in managing the consequences. The extent to which the green economy proves to be a real source of economic competitiveness will also be an important factor.

Mitigation negotiations
in future will become
much more like arms
control negotiations,
involving just the key
emitting economies

In such a negotiation process, emission reductions by one party will be carefully calibrated on the actions of others and will need to be underpinned by confidence building measures and effective verification – the latter being one of the key US demands in UN negotiations. It is in this, rather than in setting top down targets and timetables, that the UNFCCC has a potentially unique contribution to make as a trusted clearinghouse for the collection, analysis and interpretation of national information on emissions and policies.

Where does this sort of process leave the poorest and most vulnerable? Potentially disenfranchised. They will struggle to influence the mitigation negotiations between the major emitters, who will in effect determine the level of risk and impacts faced by the rest of the world, much as the USSR and the US did during the Cold War. Will major emitters take sufficient action early enough to safeguard the Small Island States and other vulnerable communities and countries? The omens are not good, though limiting damages for the most vulnerable is more likely the more exposed the major emitters are to climate impacts.

A key challenge going forward will be to try to ensure there is effective and adequate linkage between the mitigation decisions determined by the major economies and the adaptation challenges faced by the less developed, more vulnerable countries, including the financial, technological and other assistance they require. Hence the continued calls for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol from developing economies, in order to tie in the rich economies to early mitigation action, despite the ineffectiveness of this approach hitherto. Nor are the difficult dilemmas limited to the poor. For example, what strategy should the EU adopt? If it makes additional unilateral emissions reductions, in the context of a fixed carbon budget, might they be pocketed by others with no global mitigation benefit either for the EU or the most vulnerable? Or is the EU’s best strategy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy because, in the long run, that’s the only sort of economy there will be and the solutions it develops will be needed by others?

Is the EU’s best strategy to
accelerate the transition
to a low-carbon economy
because, in the long run,
that’s the only sort of
economy there will be?

The outlook is extremely challenging, but not hopeless. Ambitious mitigation targets that limit global mean temperature increase to 2°C remain (just) within reach and appear affordable at a few percent of global GDP. But they require systemic transformation of energy and economic systems in an extremely short timescale by historical standards. At the international level, we are seeing the start of a new and arguably more realistic approach that potentially will include all the major emitters, developed and emerging. But success is by no means assured, whether measured in terms of the extent of global mean temperature change or of limiting the impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable. The success of UN efforts will ultimately be measured by the degree to which they are able both to support effective mitigation negotiations among the major emitting economies and influence the ethical contours and ambition of the broader global response to climate change.

Dr Simon Buckle is Policy Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London. He was previously a senior diplomat at the British Embassy in Paris responsible for taking forward UK policy on a diverse range of global issues such as climate change, science & innovation and energy.

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