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China, EU, India and USA emission reduction plans not enough to keep world under 2 degrees

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, China, USA and the EU will have to cut emissions much more deeply then they are currently promising, a new report has found.

“This is not a good news story,” says Glen Peters, senior research fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) and lead author of the study in Environmental Research Letters.

“If we want to keep the world under two degrees and the USA, China, EU and India want to cut emissions as outlined in their pledges [under a new global climate agreement], then that means the rest of the world can’t emit any more.”

Budgeting for 2°C

Since the 1970s, scientists, politicians and economists have agreed that, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change such as major sea level rise, food shortages, and storms, the planet cannot warm more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change has said that if we emit no more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide, we have a 66 percent chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius. This is called the world’s “carbon budget”.

We’re already set to exceed 1 degree warming this year, according to scientists at Britain’s Met office, which equates to around 1,465 billion tonnes of carbon already emitted.

“This leaves a remaining budget of just 765 gigatonnes that we can emit between now and forever,” Peters said.

Paris = crunch time

Plans by about 150 countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions (called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) have been submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ahead of next month’s climate conference in Paris where a new climate agreement is expected.

We’ve already seen several analyses of these plans, Peters says.

“The UN Environment Program’s Emissions gap report and the UNFCCC’s analysis both ask: ‘given the INDCs, where do we end up?’”

“We took a slightly different approach. We looked at how the INDCs compare to what would be a ‘fair share’ of the emissions pie consistent with the 2 degree target. Not surprisingly, we find no country is within the region that would be considered ‘fair’.”

What is fair?

There’s an infinite number of ways to define fair – from looking at historical emissions, to a country’s technological capacity to reduce emissions. This is typically a sticking point in negotiations, with many countries arguing that they should not have to cut deeply if they have not emitted as much carbon historically as other countries.

“There is no doubt that some countries may raise the issue of fairness of the existing country pledges in Paris. However, most countries will hopefully recognise that it’s in their national interest to reach a good agreement in Paris rather than undermine it over an issue that cannot be solved before December,” said Germana Canzi, senior analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

Having an argument about fairness is “having an argument about not doing as much yourself”, Peters said.

“The remaining carbon budget left before [we get to] two degrees is so small that there is no room for fairness. Everyone has to do whatever they can to keep below 2 degrees.”

In the ERL paper, Peters and colleagues explore the difference in future emissions scenarios using two definitions of “fair”.

The first “fair” way for the world to cut emissions is to share the remaining quota based on the current distribution of emissions. They call this the “inertia” approach.

The second “fair” way for the world to cut emissions is to share the remaining quota based on population, so countries with higher populations have a higher quota than countries with small populations. They call this the “equity” approach.

But even some of the fairest options will be extremely difficult for developing countries, Peters said.

“Most developing countries are on a growth path and they are increasing their emissions. For them to get on the “fair” path then their emissions must first peak and then come down at a very high rate.”

“Conversely, most developed countries are reducing their emissions already so they only need to increase their emissions reductions.”

“We often talk about the US and EU doing more to give other developing countries more space to develop but you could say the same about India and China. There are a lot of other countries with a lot more need [to develop] than them.”

Can technology save the day?

Many are pinning their hopes on the development of negative emissions technologies, which will suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it indefinitely allowing countries to emit more.

“It’s almost a given that to stay within the two degree limit you have to have negative emissions,” Peters said.

The study calls for countries to ramp up investment in these technologies in the near future.

“Reality shows that carbon capture and storage is a technology that has struggled…there’s been a lot of technical problems…it is complex to capture and store carbon,” Peters said.

“There’s been huge growth in solar and wind…we need that kind of growth in carbon capture and storage technologies, but we’re a long way away from seeing that.”

According to Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change Policy at University College London, technology is not the answer.

“This call echoes a depressing and continuing inability of much of the world’s scientific community to acknowledge that the major obstacles are not technological –nor are the solutions,” he said.

“The problems stem from policy gaps and political resistance to greater ambition, as well as instability driven by international and ideological disputes. That is what Paris needs to solve.”

Peters says they go hand in hand.

“Technology breakthroughs may give governments opportunities to go further. For example, shale gas [exploration] in the USA is helping emissions to go down. When emissions are going down and people see the sky hasn’t fallen in, that may have given the Obama administration the ability to put pro-climate policies in place.”

“But then also technological breakthroughs often don’t come without some sort of government support.”

The UNFCCC country pledges are generating significant scientific data, says Peters, who is planning to expand the analysis and provide individual countries with various options and pathways to further reduce their emissions.

“This whole INDC process has given researchers like me lots of details to dig into,” Peters says.

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