Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Beyond Durban: On track towards a +4 degrees C world

By Dirk Willenbockel

While all eyes are fixated on the future of Euroland and the looming global depression, the UN Climate Summit in Durban has entered into its decisive final phase and stumbles on to pre-programmed failure.
  • Will Durban drive the final nail in the coffin of the Kyoto process and give up on a new global deal with legally binding emission reduction commitments altogether?
  • Or will the negotiations at least lead to some “road map” to a comprehensive post-Kyoto deal that may eventually enter into force by 2020?
  • Or will the decision simply be postponed yet again – as seems most likely at this stage?
What seems clear is that none of these conceivable outcomes leads to an emission path consistent with the agreed goal to limit the average global temperature rise to 2o C above pre-industrial levels. Climate science is adamant that annual global CO2 emissions will have to peak by 2020 at the latest and need to drop steadily in subsequent decades in order to maintain a reasonable chance to achieve this aim.

The International Energy Agency estimates that about 80 percent of the power stations likely to be in use in 2020 are either already built or under construction. Most of these are fossil fuel powered and will continue to pour out carbon for decades. This means that a large fraction of the global energy-related emissions permissible under a +2o C scenario are already locked in by the existing infrastructure. The implication is that the door to achieving the required emission cuts at a manageable cost is rapidly closing. Delaying action is a false economy.

A recent contribution to the scientific journal Nature points out that the hope to maintain the 2o aim if decisive mitigation action is delayed further now “is equivalent to racing towards a cliff and hoping to stop just before it”.

With no second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and no binding post-Kyoto deal covering the major emitters in sight before the end of the decade, we are left with the voluntary pledges for emission reductions submitted by developed and developing countries under the Copenhagen Accord. It has indeed been suggested – notably by the former UK chief scientific adviser David King – that a voluntary bottom-up pledge-and-review process would be a realistic and promising way forward. However, UNEP research shows that the voluntary pledges submitted are pathetically inadequate to meet the +2o C target.

UK Climate Secretary Chris Huhne’s verdict on King’s suggestion:
"Sidelining the push for a legally binding deal on curbing emissions in favour of a voluntary approach is about as useful for the climate as a chocolate tea pot”.
Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions reached a new record high last year, and scientists are getting serious about contemplating development prospects in a 4o C world. A whole recent issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is devoted to the topic. I have reached my word limit here, but recommend the paper on sub-Saharan Africa in that issue.