Forget climate pledges for Paris – let’s talk deep decarbonisation

With power stations and urban infrastructure locking in emissions for decades, countries need a long term vision

Transport infrastructure affects the long term emissions path (Pic: Flickr/Jon Curnow)

Transport infrastructure affects the long term emissions pathway (Pic: Flickr/Jon Curnow)

By Ed King

Greenhouse gas cuts proposed by countries ahead of this year’s global climate talks in Paris will not ensure the world avoids warming beyond the 2C danger zone.

This is not news – experts have known this to be true for a while. The UN’s climate chief Christiana Figueres recently joked she would lop the head off any journalist who had this revelation at the summit.

There is, France’s chief climate diplomat Laurence Tubiana admitted this week, a “disconnect” between what countries are aiming to avoid and the contributions being made.

If the success of a proposed global deal is to be measured on the % of emission cuts on the table in 2015 then it’s game over.

Only belatedly has the UN come round to admitting it, hence an increasingly urgent PR campaign to stress what else Paris can achieve and why a new universal pact will be just the start.

Tubiana: Long term goal vital for Paris climate pact

But there’s a wider point here. Avoiding a level of warming scientists say will bring more floods, droughts and faster sea level rise will not happen over a five or ten year period.

Even if every country in the world stopped all greenhouse gas emissions the planet would continue to warm in the near term, according to Richard Betts, the UK Met Office’s head of climate impacts.

In one sense, the current UN climate plans are impotent. Instead what’s needed is a long term strategy to slow, stabilise and slash emissions through 2050 and up to the end of the century.

It’s why agreement on a mid-century climate goal that sets a date for global carbon pollution to fall to a certain level is deemed essential, as is a system of regular, transparent reviews.

Progress on getting these into a Paris deal is moving slowly, a UK government official admitted on Wednesday. China and India had initially objected, arguing any Paris deal should end in 2030.

That view has shifted, but work on ensuring they boost emission cuts every five years is tough.

“If you were problem-solving you could do this quite quickly, but because we’re all trying to get a marginal advantage it’s quite hard,” said the official.

So for now there’s a limited outlook, and up till now, national green growth strategies have been scarce.

Very few governments have mapped out a decades-long pathway that will ensure they contribute to limiting warming.

National plans (INDCs) submitted to the UN are not much help in this regard. Most end at 2030, when what is needed is a route to 2050 and beyond.

Paris tracker: Who has pledged what for 2015 UN climate pact?

The good news is avoiding 2C is still possible.

That’s the view of 16 country research teams working on what’s called the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), effectively pathways to save the planet from cooking.

Even with a fast-growing global economy and population, energy-related emissions from the countries, which account for around 70% of global carbon pollution, can be cut to 48-57% below 2010 levels.

That’s roughly in line with the global cuts scientists say need to be made to stabilise temperatures at below 2C, but it requires thinking about the impact power plants built today will have in 2050.

“The sooner we start the more we can do – that is the easiest way to accomplish this,” said Teresa Ribera, head of Paris-based think tank IDDRI, which coordinates the DDPP project.

“It’s a way to connect the long term goal and INDCs, and it’s good to have this aspirational target,” added Tubiana at the same briefing in the French capital.

Video: Is avoiding 2C of global warming possible?

The DDPP results – released today – are surprising.

The US could slash emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, costing around 1% of GDP. Petrol use would drop by 76-91% while final energy use would fall 30% – that’s around 18-22% below 2014 levels.

China could drop emissions to 37% below 2010 levels while seeing primary energy use nearly double, with renewables and nuclear taking over from coal as the main source of power.

Critically, carbon capture technology would be “instrumental” in achieving fast emission cuts post-2030, along with a 73% drop in energy intensity of a unit of GDP.

Meanwhile an Indian “sustainable scenario” would still see a 34% increase in emissions, even with 58% of electricity production in 2050 from renewables.

If that sounds bad consider this: as of 2015, 300 million still lack access to the electricity grid. By 2050 India is set to be home to 400 million more people than today.

And it represents a massive improvement on a business-as-usual footing, which would see its coal use rocket, putting a massive hole in UN climate plans.

Report: Brazil backs long term zero carbon goal

Without blueprints stretching into the future, many administrations will struggle to understand the scale of changes their economies face, added Jim Williams, a Californian scientist who chairs DDPP.

“It’s a concrete organisational plan and a focus of discussion that can help stakeholders deal with this complicated problem,” he said.

US government officials he has briefed showed interest in the scenarios on offer, said Williams, but were not optimistic these could be adopted as part of the Paris pact.

Tubiana told reporters she is lobbying governments to adopt these or other pathways as a sign of their long term commitments to carbon cuts.

So far only the UK, with its four-yearly carbon budgets and a goal of 80% emission cuts by 2050 has come close to matching this vision.

Yet others – even in Europe which regards itself as a low carbon leader – will struggle to meet longer term targets unless they think more strategically, warned Michel Colombier, IDDRI’s scientific director.

“They don’t have the vision… we are no longer discussing the incremental transition, we are discussing the core transition,” he said.

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