The COP21 Approach: Tackling a Science-Based Target Without Using Science

Aside from watching Al Gore present an updated 2015 version of his historic “An Inconvenient Truth”—and have him casually stroll past in one of the conference corridors (when I say “casually”, I mean surrounded by security guards, cameramen and a herd of fans)—I spent a large part of Tuesday in Paris at sessions discussing the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). To clarify for those unfamiliar with the jargon: prior to the negotiations, each party/nation was asked to submit their greenhouse gas mitigation plans—these formed their INDC. Essentially they represent how each nation is willing contribute to collective global action.

Most of the discussion was extremely positive about the role of the INDCs. This mechanism whereby nations can self-determine the level of their obligations is new to the UNFCCC process, and it has managed to address some of the key issues from the Kyoto Protocol. Within the Kyoto agreement, developed nations were allocated reduction targets while developing nations were exempt from mitigation goals. This was fair based on the fact that developing nations should be prioritising poverty alleviation, growth and social mobility. However, we quickly realised when emerging economies (such as China and India) leapfrogged developed nations and became some of the world’s largest emitters, that fully inclusive, global cooperation from all nations was necessary. The INDC mechanism largely does so—more than 180 countries (covering more than 94% of global emissions) have submitted climate action plans. The INDCs have encouraged nearly all nations to contribute to the overall framework. This is a great start.

However, it does need to be acknowledged that even if every nation was to fulfil their proposed goals (because they “intend” to do so doesn’t necessarily mean they will), it’s likely that we’ll end up with an average warming close to 3C (the actual quoted figure is 2.7C, but with such large uncertainty bands, I don’t feel comfortable quoting this to the 0.1C level). At the same time, we have persistent calls for a readjustment of the 2C target to 1.5C [I covered this in a bit more detail in an earlier post]. At yesterday’s plenary session, it was revealed that despite several resistors, there are wide calls from nations for this readjustment. This ambition is refreshing, but none have reflected this level of commitment in their proposed INDCs. The quoted reason for readjusting our temperature target to 1.5C was on the basis of the “science” advising us on the warming levels that would be considered “safe”. But the INDCs we’re using to get there are not based on science at all—they’re a mish-mash mix of individual intentions.

We have the classic issue here of trying to develop a framework by using both a bottom-up and top-down approach. Either can work on their own, but trying to combine the two and expecting them to add up doesn’t. If we’re going to be serious about building a robust, transparent international agreement, we can build it in one of two ways.

We can use the bottom-up approach: this is the method the INDC pledges use. Each nation declares what its intended goals are, and we build all of these together to form a global commitment. The level of temperature rise is therefore reliant entirely on the level of ambition of the INDCs. In other words: “we’ll do what we can/are willing to/want to do, and deal with whatever temperature rise this corresponds to”.

The top-down approach is a more science-based method based on a balance of the figures to give a specific intended outcome. In this context, the top-down approach would be to define a temperature target (1.5C or 2C—whatever we agreed on), then directly allocate and define nation’s commitments based on the level of mitigation we need to achieve this. In contrast to the INDCs, the commitments would have to be dictated rather than decided by choice so they collectively fall in line with the agreed global target. In other words: “this is what we want to achieve, therefore this is what we have to do to get there”.

I’m not going to argue the case either way—the choice actually reflects a broader conceptual way of thinking. But I think it is important to highlight that we’re trying to do both at the same time. If a 1.5C target is adopted, I expect in years to come that there will be major disputes about the fact that we’re off track to meet it. Unfortunately that’s what happens when nations submit their intentions and they add up to a 3C warming. If we’re seriously arguing for a 1.5C target on the basis of “science” then we have to use a science-based target allocation approach.

The INDCs can change in the coming years. I thought there might be some readjustments to them this year in Paris (especially after calls for a more ambitious temperature target), however, there has been no movement from any nation. The INDCs were supposed to be submitted as an initial commitment for negotiation at this year’s meeting but we seem to have accepted these as our new adopted goals. In fact, the INDCs are one of the few aspects in the agreement which haven’t been contested at all. That’s fair if we’re comfortable with a warming of 2-3C (2C at best if nations begin to go beyond their commitments). Personally I find the combination of these INDCs and calls for a more ambitious global target to be a bit baffling. They just don’t add up.

 

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