Yesterday the latest edition of the scientific journal Nature (Vol 464, 22 April) published an opinion piece by a group from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and others that shows that, to use the title of the piece, “Copenhagen Accord pledges are paltry” (access the article here).
Among their comments:
- It is amazing how unambitious the pledges are. For example, the European Union offered cuts in the range 20-30%; the 20% figure would lead to smaller annual reductions from now to 2020 than have been achieved over the last thirty years.
- Actual emissions might be higher than the sum of the pledges, even if everyone sticks to their undertaking, because under the Kyoto Protocol some countries’ pledges were so weak that large amounts of surpluses have been and will be generated over the 2008-2012 period even without any environmental policy effort. These allowances can be banked and used later.
- A further surplus comes from land use, land-use change and forestry.
- Many parties have indicated that working towards the stronger end of their pledged commitments, or making any further improvements, is conditional on a global and comprehensive agreement that doesn’t currently exist. So the less ambitious ends of these targets are more likely to reflect the real outcome of the Copenhagen Accord.
- Unless there is an increase in reduction rates between now and 2020, we will be relying on extreme reduction rates beyond 2020, of a kind (eg 5% per annum) that could only be achieved by radical policy changes implemented now.
The authors’ own summary of their key findings is:
- Nations will probably meet only the lower ends of their emissions pledges in the absence of a binding international agreement
- Nations can bank an estimated 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents for use after 2012
- Land-use rules are likely to result in further allowance increases of 0.5 GtCO2-eq per year
- Global emissions in 2020 could thus be up to 20% higher than today
- Current pledges mean a greater than 50% chance that warming will exceed 3 deg C by 2100
- If nations agree to halve emissions by 2050, there is still a chance that warming will exceed 2 deg C and will almost certainly exceed 1.5 deg C.
The critical issue in relation to the Copenhagen Accord to my mind is what impact the Accord has on the behaviour of all its signatories and everyone else.
The pessimistic view, reflected above, is the view expressed by “many parties” that in the absence of a comprehensive binding agreement they will not pledge more and will work to the lower end of their targets.
The optimistic view is that the Copenhagen pledge approach at least gets some commitments on the table. The fact that these commitments are demonstrably inadequate will cause the most significant players to put pressure on the weakest performers to do more, and also to bargain amongst themselves to strengthen their commitments.
I hope the optimistic view is correct, but we are running out of time. There seems to be no political system – even quite authoritarian ones – that can handle adequately a requirement to impose costs on the current generation in the interests of people who are coming along in the distant future. The problem with that kind of thinking is, of course, as the changed weather patterns of SW Australia and SE Australia demonstrate, the long term future is already with us.