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Copenhagen accounting

Feb 16th 2010


From Economist.com

What countries are currently offering on climate


SINCE the fractious negotiations that produced a last-minute “accord” at the Copenhagen
climate-change meeting last year, those in and out of government who concern
themselves with climate policy have been in a state of some befuddlement. They wonder
what it all means, how to build on it and whom to blame for its perceived deficiencies and
the troublesome circumstances of its birth. Despite this the accord has already achieved a
couple of the aims its framers intended. Neither is, of itself, earth-shattering, far less Earth-
saving. But they are worth noting, not least for what they reveal about where climate
diplomacy should be focusing.

The accord provided a way for countries to make public, if non-binding, commitments on
climate change. By the early February deadline that was set for this, some 90 of them had
done so. In the weeks since, various stalwarts of the climate-wonkery circuit have been
working out what those commitments might mean. That process is made complex by the
fact that countries can express their intentions in different ways, and that many have
provided two or more levels of commitment: a low one that they say they will pursue
regardless, and one or more higher ones that they will try for if enough other countries are
also going high.

The unsurprising bottom line of the various analyses is that


even if you add up all the high commitments, you do not
get a package that keeps average warming below 2°C. In
an analysis provided by the Climate Scoreboard run by the
Sustainability Institute, a research group based in Vermont,
adding up the more ambitious commitments and
extrapolating to 2100 gives a 90% probability that global
temperatures would be between 1.7 and 4.7°C above the
pre-industrial baseline. Given that range, the chances of being in the part below 2°C are
slim. A 50-50 chance of staying the right side of two degrees would require cuts something
like half as large again.

Insufficient as they are, those high commitments remain pretty much the same as the
positions with which negotiators arrived in Copenhagen. As such, they represent one of
the accord’s modest successes. One of its purposes was to square away those offers in
the face of a total collapse of the conference: to provide a ratchet that, while not offering
progress, limited backsliding.

Another of the accord’s purposes was to provide a way for the world to move beyond the
besetting problem of the Kyoto protocol. That protocol requires developed countries that
have ratified it to reduce their emissions while imposing no such strictures on the rest of
the world, and politicians from the rich world who are critical of Kyoto make much of this
iniquity. They may be surprised, then, to learn that the bulk of the commitments to reduced
emissions in the Copenhagen accord come from developing countries.

The effect is most striking if you look at the “low-abatement” figures—the sum of what
countries say they will do regardless of other countries’ actions. Before Copenhagen,
according to an analysis by the European Climate Foundation (ECF), a not-for-profit
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organisation devoted to climate policy, these commitments added up to an annual
reduction of 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, compared with business as usual, by
2020. In the commitments under the accord that figure has risen to 5.0 billion tonnes, of
which developing-country commitments account for 4.2 billion tonnes. The developing
world has increased its commitment by two-thirds since Copenhagen. The developed
world has cut its by about a quarter, from 1.1 billion tonnes to 800m tonnes.

The developed-country change reflects alterations in professed policy by Russia, Canada


and a few others. The developing-country change comes mostly from the growth and
firming up of the commitments on deforestation made by Indonesia and Brazil. One of the
underappreciated aspects of Copenhagen was progress on the question of what can be
done about deforestation, which currently accounts for a bit less than 20% of global
emissions. Reducing deforestation is a comparatively cheap way of reducing emissions,
with other benefits to boot. The scope for going farther than the current commitments,
using various sorts of finance, remains high.

In increasing the amount of abatement from the 5 billion tonnes of those opening bids to
the 9.2 billion tonnes of the higher aspirations, the onus falls back on developed countries,
specifically America. If the American Senate were to pass a climate bill that put a
significant cost on carbon, and thus provided cuts of the same size as those expected
under the cap-and-trade bill which passed the House of Representatives last year,
America would be widely seen as having raised the stakes with a commitment to a
reduction of just under 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. In such a situation Europe might
very well respond by increasing its own reductions by about 500m tonnes. That, in turn,
could move other countries on to their high-reduction paths. In the ECF analysis, the
indirect effect of American cuts equivalent to those in the House legislation, via increased
ambition elsewhere, is even more than the direct effect. That is pretty impressive leverage.

Even in the high-abatement model, though, the developing countries are still offering
greater emissions cuts, compared with business as usual, thanks mostly to plans for less
deforestation. The problem—and it would be a good problem to have—is that those cuts
cannot keep coming. Once deforestation falls to zero, which seems a plausible goal for
2030, the pressure for other forms of reduction will become even greater, and inaction now
will make those reductions harder to achieve. According to the ECF, more than 50% of the
plants that will be providing the world with electricity in 2020 have yet to be built. The more
of that need that is met by high-carbon technologies like coal, the harder it will be to make
big cuts later. And to make a big difference in whether those plants are carbon-intensive or
not will take levels of commitment far beyond those so far revealed by the accord.

Taken from www.economist.com/world/international/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15539489