2°C Global Warming: A Deal in Durban
Keeping the increase in earth’s temperature to less than 2°C during 21st century, a goal agreed by global leaders in the past and intended to minimize effects of apocalyptic climate outcomes, has driven all negotiations on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to date. But the commitments made through the Kyoto protocol and other agreements, such as Copenhagen accord, are neither legally binding for the world’s major emitters nor sufficient to achieve this objective.
Last Sunday, global leaders at the UN climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, determined a path towards a new, legally binding agreement to curb GHG emissions. While many critics are not happy about the deal, saying it is “too little, too late,” most world leaders have welcomed it. There is hope that the deal struck in Durban will avert a 2°C increase in global temperatures.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since the beginning of industrial development more than 150 years ago, the average surface temperature of the earth has increased by about 0.76 °C. IPCC predicts that the global surface temperature is likely to rise at least 1.1 to 2.9 °C (2 to 5.2 °F) during this century, but could rise as much as 2.4 to 6.4 °C (4.3 to 11.5 °F).
To keep the temperature increase below 2°C, climate scientists estimate we would need to limit GHG concentrations in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2-eqivalent (CO2-eq). However, scientists can’t guarantee that limiting concentrations in this way would achieve the goal of keeping temperature increases below 2°C. There is roughly a 50% chance that the world will warm by more than 2°C even if global GHG concentrations are stabilised at 450 ppm.
Atmospheric CO2-eq levels before the industrial revolution were about 275 ppm on average and they have been rising ever since. Today they are at about 397 ppm. Taking this into account, the “correct” GHG concentration target depends on how much certainty we want. According to various scientific estimates, if we want to give ourselves an even chance to stay below 2°C, 450 ppm CO2-eq is a reasonable long-term target, but if we want more certainty (say, at least a 90% chance), then the increase in GHG concentrations would have to be kept well below this target.
Most recent scientific studies agree that global GHG emissions would need to fall to around 50% or less of 2000 levels by 2050 in order to meet the target of 450 ppm CO2-eq. If actions to curb emissions are delayed, it would demand even more rapid and drastic reductions down the road to achieve the same long-term goal. If global emissions peak by 2020, emissions would need to be reduced by about 3% per year, every year, for the next several decades. If global emissions peak later (say in 2030), they would then have to be reduced even more rapidly to meet the same long-term goal. If nothing is done, then GHG emissions could increase two to three fold before the end of this century.
While it is important for all nations to contribute towards the goal of reducing CO2, it is important to note that the world’s top five emitters produce 56% of all emissions. In 2009, global CO2 emissions were 34 gigatonnes (34,000 million tonnes) and 85% of those were energy related CO2 emissions. On the basis of absolute emissions, the world’s five major energy related CO2 emitters in 2009 were:
· China (6,549 million tonnes),
· United States (5,587 million tonnes),
· India (1,586 million tonnes),
· Russia (1,533 million tonnes), and
· Japan (1,152 million tonnes).
But that is only one way to look at the data. If you take into account a nation’s population, a different picture emerges. The US is number one in terms of per capita emissions – with 17 tonnes emitted per person every year. China, by contrast, emits 5 tonnes per person and India only 1 ton per person. But per capita emissions for developing nations are increasing as these countries grow economically.
In terms of actual progress to curb emissions, not much has been achieved. Energy related global emissions increased from 21 gigatonnes in 1990 to 29 gigatonnes in 2009 despite the Kyoto protocol, which committed developed countries to reducing carbon emissions by 5% from 1990 levels before 2012. It’s important, however to note that the US had opted out of Kyoto and India and China did not agree to a 5% cut in emissions. Emissions of Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia have all increased since 1990 and these countries are less interested in curbing emissions without the participation of US, China and India. Only European countries have made some progress – their emissions in 2009 are 4.9% less than the 1990 level.
One of the challenges in getting any commitment on climate change is, even if we stop the emission of CO2 completely, concentrations of CO2 will linger in the atmosphere for a century or more – meaning no matter how much we reduce emissions today, there won’t be much benefit in the short-term. Thus, we are asking citizens and nations to pay a price now (in terms of economic burden) for benefits that may not be evident for years to come.
Another issue is that, although climate change is a global problem, its impact is not felt equally. Cold countries in the Northern Hemisphere (e.g. Russia, Canada and parts of the U.S) may benefit to some degree from global warming, while countries in various other parts of the world (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh) will likely bear more of the negative burden of climate change and find it more difficult to adapt.
To determine who should take action and to what extent is not an easy task. Do we hold countries responsible for historical emissions or just for future growth in emissions? Should we consider absolute emissions or per capita emissions? Should we consider economic status of each nation? There are no simple answers. The argument made by developing countries (China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) is that, since developed countries have been mainly responsible for two hundred years worth of GHG emissions released into the atmosphere, they should act first to address it. But according to Canada and other developed nations, developing economies like China and India should be part of emissions reduction program, as should the U.S. China’s and India’s emissions are growing by more than 9% annually; America’s by 4%.
It seems that the Durban deal has put an end to this finger pointing and – for the first time in the history – both developed and developing economies, normally cautious, have made a commitment to take collective action to combat climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year, will also be extended for at least another five years under the Durban accord.
The Durban Action Plan is a binding framework that has provided answers to problems that have prevented meaningful discussions for years – problems such as shared responsibility for controlling emissions and the need to keep global temperature increases under the danger threshold of 2°C. However, it is important to keep in mind that the Durban agreement is just a beginning and most of the hard work still lies ahead: setting emission limits and reduction targets for all nations and actually implementing policies to curb emissions.
(Note: Above opinions are my own and not of Suncor Energy Inc.)