Climate deal: Momentum is gaining, but not enough


The momentum towards the UN climate talks in Copenhagen seems to be gaining by the hour and these developments must be welcomed.

The EU’s initial offer of a 20 per cent cut on 1990 levels over the same time period — finalised last month — is the third important part of the jigsaw. These three country blocks account for around 60 per cent of global emissions so what they do is incredibly important. But what do these targets really mean?

China’s impressive-sounding target to reduce its carbon intensity refers to cutting the CO2 that is emitted per yuan of economic activity. But because economic forecasts already predict that China’s economy will become less carbon intensive in the next decade, the country’s pledge actually only amounts to a cut of between zero and 12 per cent off business as usual emissions in 2020 (depending on what version of the future you choose to compare it with). That is roughly a 40 per cent increase in CO2 emissions on current levels.

The US’ number, as environmentalists, frustrated by the lost decade under President Bush, are keen to point out, amounts to only a four per cent cut in emissions compared with 1990 levels.

But Europe is also playing the same game. The 1990 baseline for its targets flatters the EU massively because it allows it to count the emissions reductions that occurred in the 1990s due to the collapse of Soviet economies that are now part of the club.

The combination of this unearned reduction, with a handful of one-off reductions in industrial gases in a few countries, delivered Europe its Kyoto target ahead of schedule. And it is now set to achieve more than a 10 per cent reduction by the end of this decade — helped along by the current recession. Compared with 2005 emissions the current 20 per cent target is only a 13 per cent reduction by 2020.
So what is the best basis to judge whether countries are committing to a comparable effort? The main obstacle to reaching global agreement is countries’ concerns about their economic competitiveness. And clearly what impacts this most is the level of effort that needs to be expended to reduce emissions between now and the target deadline. So arguably the most sensible metric is to compare targets against most recent levels.

Over a number of years, the EU has claimed to be leading the world in reducing emissions. It has introduced a range of policies to try to curb emissions but these have been slow to start and dedicated climate and energy policies have delivered few savings to date. This is evident not only in the emissions record so far but also from the continued unbroken link between emissions and economic growth or decline.

Business as usual

Investment in energy infrastructure also appears not to have deviated significantly from ‘business as usual.’ with many more coal-fired power stations being proposed in Europe. Cap and trade regulation has been implemented on 50 per cent of emissions, however, they have been set too leniently leading too surpluses in emissions permits and low prices.

More investment is now being made into renewable electricity but this is still too insignificant on its own to achieve a significant reduction in all energy-related emissions. The harder tasks of reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations and industrial plant and decarbonising our transport and heating systems has yet to begin in earnest. As a result, emissions in recent years, the effect of the recent recession aside, have been more or less static.

But the good news is that Europe does at least have some momentum and a policy head start over countries like the US. But only tougher targets will provide the impetus for serious policy change and investment on the ground. That is why the targets announced over the last two days by the US and China are welcome because the EU should now be forced to move to its higher conditional target of at least a 30 per cent cut on 1990 levels (meaning a 22 per cent cut on 2007).

Even if Europe does this, the collective effort now on the table still falls well short of the latest scientific recommendations that global emissions should peak and decline by 2015 to avoid a less than 50/50 chance of going above 2C warming. Negotiators in Copenhagen must therefore try to ratchet up all the numbers currently on the table. Failing that it is imperative that these numbers for 2020 are reviewed following the publication of the next scientific assessment due in 2014. By then, the world will be well on the way to developing clean energy technologies, and it should be possible for much more ambitious targets to be agreed.

Capturing countries’ current ambitions now in a legally binding framework, even if they are low, is politically important but we should not see this as the final word. A decade is a long time and we must plan to increase our efforts as soon as possible.

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