If COP21 cannot deliver a 2°C deal, what must it do?

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A demonstration for climate action in Australia, 2014. [Takver/Flickr]

With eight weeks until the close of COP21, it’s now clear how much more ambitious world leaders’ commitments must become in order to prevent irreversible climate change, writes Jeremy Woods.   

Dr Jeremy Woods is Climate-KIC programme leader at Imperial College, London.

The COP21 calculator shows that the combined current pledges (INDCs) represent a meaningful step towards a sustainable future. The emissions pathway from INDCs in their current form will slow global warming by a maximum of 2°C by 2100 (equivalent to cutting of about 40% of cumulative emissions over the period 1870-2100), unless further and sharper action is taken in the years that follow the commitment period (2020 to 2030).

But as the UN’s top climate official, Christiana Figueres, puts it, this is not supposed to be a “one shot deal”. A 2°C trajectory is not out of our reach, but as the Paris meeting nears, it is clear that a progressive ramping up of emissions reduction efforts is vital.

By 2030, in the absence of the INDCs, the world would have emitted 3,745 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2) since 1870, whilst with the INDCs we estimate the world will emit 3,700 GtCO2. In order to be on a safe pathway heading for the 2°C target, 2030 cumulative emissions needed to be below 3,550 GtCO2. Cancelling out this overshoot is equivalent to cutting the combined emissions of the USA and EU (2nd and 3rd largest emitters) in their entirety for that period.

So if UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon knew back in June “…that these INDCs (would) not be sufficient to place us on a less-than-2° pathway”, why then did he institute the system?

If nothing else, the process has enabled greater visibility of the task ahead; successfully managing climate change requires a paradigm shift in the economy. Studies show that human beings – among them global leaders – are sensitive to social feedback. The transparent handling of the task ahead is expected to promote generosity from countries as they work for the common good. The costs of implementing a 2°C trajectory are estimated to be less than 1% of global GDP. Whereas the costs of an environmental disaster of the order we face from climate change are at least 15-20% GDP lost by the end of this century. 

The current reality is that committing the global economy to a 2°C trajectory this COP exposes the world’s major emitters to huge cost implications and risk; requiring a wholesale reconfiguration of the economy. In their current configuration the INDCs are incapable of limiting warming to safe levels in the long-term, even if best efforts are employed after the 2030s. So a far more radical plan is required, that recognises the scale of the challenge and begins to establish the longer term rules to set emissions on a pathway of drastic reduction post 2030. This outcome will have to achieve both the drastic reduction in emissions and also a significant enhancement of carbon sinks (technologies and solutions that actively pump CO2 out of the atmosphere, such as Bioenergy coupled to Carbon Capture and Storage, the so-called BECCs option) to get back on track.

And so at first take, it is easy to dismiss the INDCs as paying lip-service to climate change. But with closer inspection it can be seen that the INDCs do set at least some of the world’s largest emitters on a new pathway that could ultimately achieve the aim of combatting greenhouse gas emissions to the point of not exceeding the long term 2°C target. For example, of the world’s top eight leading emitters, the USA and EU are making significant statements about their ambition to reduce emissions, effectively promising to achieve reductions of over 80% of those estimated to be technically possible by the IPCC. Even China, with an apparently feeble promise, aiming at reductions in emissions of less than 20% of those we estimate to be technically possible by 2030, is in practice making a huge commitment to delivering a prosperous future for its people within a global regime that ultimately leads to climate stability.

Ultimately, the COP21 must do two things. Firstly, there needs to be consensus among the world’s largest emitters, both industrial and developing countries, that they can deliver the lifestyles their populations will demand and cut emissions drastically. That pathway will require that global rules around competition are reset and that common ground-rules for competition and innovation are established across the board. Secondly, the INDCs are a very small step along this road and the trajectory from 2030 to 2050 must be clearly signposted in order to allow the necessary private sector investment to be made now and over the coming decades to deliver the innovations needed. Public sector financing alone is totally inadequate for the job ahead.

The COP21 calculator shows that we are facing a colossal, but not impossible challenge. The acceptance of that challenge is vital in order for policymakers to set an ambitious global deal. If the COP21 is ultimately successful, it will be because those countries that delay their first steps along the road to a low carbon economy will ultimately be left out in the warm, whilst the rest of the world competes and prospers inside the tent.

The COP21 calculator is an interactive tool showing the effectiveness of countries’ COP 21 pledges to prevent climate change. The methodology behind the COP21 Calculator originates from the Global Calculator, a project led by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, co-funded by Climate-KIC and built by international organisations from the US, China, India and Europe. The calculator is an interactive tool for businesses, NGOs and governments to consider the options for cutting carbon emissions and the trade-offs for energy and land use to 2050. For further information click here.