Who’s responsible for tackling climate change? – COP 20 outcomes

Smog in guangzhou1000
Smog in Guangzhou, China

By Dr Flora WhitmarshGrantham Institute

An agreement produced by the 20th Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, noted ‘with grave concern’ that countries’ current pledges on emissions reductions are insufficient to keep global temperature rise within either 2°C or 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels. This is indeed a serious concern because temperature changes of just a few degrees are enough to change the climate significantly. Rising sea levels, melting mountain glaciers and polar ice caps and increases in extreme precipitation have already been observed. These trends will continue with ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, and it is expected that we will continue to see an increase in extreme high sea levels, an increase in the intensity of the heaviest rain, and changes in the global distribution of rainfall.

The Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have until March 2015 to provide updated emissions pledges. The 1994 UNFCCC protocol aims to achieve the ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. The protocol made it clear that countries have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’, implying that developed nations who are responsible for historical emissions should make the deepest cuts. An agreement drafted during COP 20 added the phrase ‘in light of different national circumstances’. The new deal to some extent blurs the distinction that has existed between developed and developing nations. However, it remains to be seen exactly how the responsibility to reduce emissions will be spread between different countries.

China’s per capita emissions are now at EU levels, but when total cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases are taken into account – carbon dioxide is long lived in the atmosphere so the total emissions over time are what matter – the five countries most responsible for global warming on a per capita basis are the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Russia and Germany. When countries are ranked by their absolute contribution to global warming so far, the top five are the United States, China, Russia, Brazil and India, and the United Kingdom is number seven on the list. Of course, the reason for the United Kingdom’s high ranking on both these lists because it industrialised early. Different studies disagree on the exact ranking, but on a per capita basis the developed nations bear most of the responsibility for the temperature increases we have already seen. Nevertheless, there is increasingly a need for the richer developing nations to take some action as well.

The coming months are a critical time for the global climate change negotiations. There have already been encouraging signs: the United Kingdom and the EU have led the way with ambitious pledges, and China and the United States have taken a positive step forward with their recent bilateral agreement. However, more needs to be done. It is right that the United Kingdom and the EU are leading the way on this, but it is also vital that the political will remains to tackle climate change as we move into a crucial stage of the negotiations. Action is urgently needed – in order to avoid temperatures rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, global emissions should peak by 2020. Delaying the peak in emissions until 2030 will increase the costs of taking action and make it very difficult to keep to this target. Meeting the 2°C target will require the leaders of the developed world to continue to increase the level of ambition over the coming months.

One comment for “Who’s responsible for tackling climate change? – COP 20 outcomes

  1. Yes this is absolutely the most important part of the debate. Moving from the two annex system to a ‘fair allocation of costs’ system. Three comments:

    – Roughly 50% of present day (therefore I’m guessing historical as well) emissions per year are absorbed by terrestrial and ocean systems (roughly 50:50 between these two). Where the emissions fed into the analysis net or gross of these absorptions? I would say they should be net at first thinking.

    – The per-capita measure of contribution to climate change (responsibility) should have a consistent ratio to the per-capita economic cost acceptable to that nation across nations in any given year. The interesting analysis is when time comes into the equation. Obviously we have a carbon budget in max PPM in atmosphere of CO2(e), and from this we can draw the global reduction curves. Then take the year in the future when emissions have dropped to zero. At this point in time (as at other times) the historic emissions per capita need to be a constant ratio to the economic cost (accounting for time) per capita when looking across nations. You also need to know what each nation’s cost of reduction is, to enable the derivation of the actual target from the appropriate cost (‘responsibility’) and average target (ie. in a carbon trading system). The hardest bit is when you have to allocate it between countries because as described in the blog above the countries are different sizes. Maybe it is possible to hold the shape of the average reduction curve constant but then flex the ‘ambitiousness’ of the overall curve so that the budget is hit in a certain time period within the constraint of constant ratios across countries (though not across time). Not positive about this but seems maybe right.

    – Adjustment for ‘genuine savings’ or the ability of a nation’s ancestors to convert natural capital into sustainable income yielding capital should not be made. One could potentially make a constant reduction across all nations of reducing importance of historic emissions, just because they would not always have been converted into economic capital, and we have more control over emissions between now and say 2050, and more knowledge, however working in the other direction is the fact that carbon’s residence time in the atmosphere feeds through to temperature. This is something, along with the shape of the curve described above, that could hopefully be agreeable across nations via theory ie. absent of economic considerations.

    I would say the above (or refined above) is the appropriate analysis. If somebody can do it and communicate it clearly then great. Otherwise I would hope that an iterative multi-party negotiation process would mimic it closely enough.

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