With the historic climate march in New York, and pledges by the world’s three largest emitters—China, the United States, and the 28 countries of the European Union—to cap or cut emissions, I’m already on record as suggesting that the fall of 2014 could be a turning point in the international effort to address global warming.
The momentum seems to be building.
Particularly notable are two more recent advances: China’s decision to cap coal consumption in 2020, embodied in its new energy strategy action plan, and President Obama’s pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, an international fund to help developing countries address climate change.
But the case for a real international turning point will be put to the test over the next two weeks. On Monday, leaders from countries around the world will convene a “Conference of the Parties” (COP) in Lima, Peru. This meeting is intended to tackle a number of critical issues to set the stage for a successful global climate agreement in Paris next year.
How will we know if a real turning point has arrived? I’ll be looking for tangible progress in three big areas.
Commitments from other countries
The United States, the European Union, and China are collectively responsible for about fifty-five percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Now that they have all committed to cut or cap their respective emissions by 2025 and 2030, it is an opportune time for other major contributors, such as India, Japan, Indonesia, and Brazil to step up to the plate. To keep the momentum going, we will need some or all of these countries to signal in Lima that they too will make pledges next year. It would be even better if they agreed to make their pledges by March 2015, the date prior conferees indicated was preferred. Early commitments from these countries will help create a virtuous circle, encouraging “holdout” countries to jump on the bandwagon, and allowing for anticipated aggregate reductions to be tallied before the December conference in Paris.
Exceeding the “Carbon Budget”
Some observers expect that when all of the countries’ individual pledges to cut emissions are added up, the total amount of reductions will not be enough. In a nutshell, world leaders have committed to holding warming to no more than 2 degrees centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. To have a chance of achieving that, we need to limit worldwide emissions to about 47 gigatons in 2025 and 42 gigatons in 2030, and make even steeper reductions thereafter.
Until all the pledges are in, we cannot say how close we will get to the target. But unless the pledged reductions are a lot steeper and faster than earlier pledges have been, we may exceed these “carbon budgets” by a wide margin, as much as -7-10 gigatons in 2025 and 14-17 gigatons in 2030. This is a major problem and it is not easy to solve—the excess emissions in 2030 could equal as much as a third of all global emissions today.
There is not yet an agreement on what to do if the aggregate pledges don’t hit the targets. In fact, there is not even an agreement on whether to tally up the individual pledges and compare them to a worldwide “carbon budget” that would limit temperature increases to two degrees. So, a test for Lima will be whether the parties emerge with a plan to formally confront the gap between ambition and reality, including a process to address it.
In 2009 at a similar convening, leaders of developed countries agreed to mobilize annually $100 billion by 2020 from a mix of public and private sources to help developing countries lower their emissions and adapt to climate change. Developed countries are nowhere near meeting this goal, though as noted President Obama has pledged $3 billion (over four years, not annually) in US government funds to the Green Climate Fund. A measure of success from Lima would be a commitment to develop a firm roadmap by no later than Paris for how to reach the $100 billion annual climate finance commitment by 2020.
What can we do here?
President Obama is poised to leave behind an admirable legacy of lasting progress in addressing global warming. The most important thing we can do is to be clear and vocal that it is in our economic, national security, and public health interest for the U.S. to lead on addressing climate change. That means supporting the Administration’s efforts and urging that they be strengthened to close the gap between our commitments and what is needed worldwide to address the threat of climate change. It also means fighting back when opponents in Congress and elsewhere seek to undo the progress we are making, because the United States’ commitments, coupled with tangible measures such as the proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from power plants, are galvanizing the world community. As my former boss, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, often said when promoting Massachusetts’ nation-leading clean energy laws, “if we get clean energy right, the world will be our customer.” Gov. Patrick’s forward-leaning policies have helped spawn some 90,000 clean energy jobs in Massachusetts over the past seven years. The United States can see a similar boost from the policies President Obama is now seeking to advance on a national scale.