Wildly differing promises by countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years have turned into a patchwork of confusion in advance of the United Nations-sponsored climate summit in Paris this month, making it unlikely that draconian global action to fight “climate change” will be implemented at the urgent pace that supporters say is needed to meet the problem.
According to a densely-worded and often convoluted 66-page U.N. “synthesis report” prepared in advance of the meeting, the result of those promises, known in climate-speak as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs, amounts to a slower future rate of growth for global carbon emissions, but not much more.
At best, the document says, the rate of increase will be half as bad as previous levels that those ringing the climate alarm bells have warned were dangerously out of control. This, the document adds, will demand much tougher actions in decades ahead — provided, of course, that countries that must make the future cuts agree with them.
If all the current promises are kept, “from 2010 to 2030, the relative emission increase in line with the INDCs is expected to be 10 percent to 57 percent lower than the relative global emission increase over the prior two decades from 1990 to 2010,” the report says — adding that emissions during the earlier period were growing by 24 percent.
What does that mean for overall global levels of carbon emissions? They are expected to be “higher by 34-46 per cent in 2025 and 37-52 percent in 2030 in relation to the global emission level in 1990; 29-40 percent in 2025 and 32-45 percent in 2030 in relation to the global emission level in 2000; and 8-18 percent in 2025 and 11-22 percent in 2030 in relation to the global emission level in 2010.”
The slowing levels of growth implied in that sludgy prose comes nowhere near the absolute global cuts in greenhouse gases by 2020 of between 25 and 40 percent from 1990 levels, and still steeper cuts of 80 to 95 percent over 1990 levels by 2050 — that proponents say are needed to keep the global thermostat from rising by 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels during this century — a hike they warn would bring planetary cataclysm.
The numbing complexity of the INDC calculations is typical of the synthesis report, and of the whole INDC process itself, which was enthusiastically embraced by the Obama administration to break a negotiating impasse in the wake of the collapsing Kyoto Protocol.
The new strategy was an alternative to top-down, globally negotiated cuts in greenhouse gases — opposed by developing nations like China and India, who never joined Kyoto, and countries like Russia and Canada, which dropped out.
The INDC approach, started two years ago, aimed to produce a new agreement in Paris that let every nation do its own thing — subject to vigorous international peer group pressure — in setting greenhouse goals, both to keep the moribund climate change process alive, and to use U.S. efforts as a kick-starter to the process.
The idea was to start a virtuous race to the bottom that would gain momentum from pace-setters like the Obama administration –which set its own INDC for the Paris meeting at a drastic cutback of carbon emissions by 2025 of 26 to 28 percent below a benchmark level of 2005.
(The administration says it is already on target to reach a 2020 goal of 17 percent cuts against the same benchmark.)
Americans already have some inkling of how the White House intends to get to its target — through a variety of sweeping measures that, in many cases, face stiff opposition in the courts.
In its INDC, the administration points to the controversial goals of its Clean Power Plan as part of its reduction program, along with new fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, methane reduction targets for the oil and gas industry and for landfills, tough standards for carbon emissions from appliances and equipment, and new residential building codes.
The administration’s chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, has told Congress that the cutbacks will all be accomplished through regulatory authority rather than new legislation.
Similar draconian collective targets have been set by the 28-member European Community, which has put forward a minimum 40 percent reduction in domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared to 1990 levels.
But then things get much less straightforward.
China’s lengthy and sweeping INDC promises to “achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030” — in short, no absolute cutbacks before then — while making “best efforts” to get there sooner, coupled with arrays of sometimes puzzling promises in other carbon suppression areas. (Sample: “to increase the forst stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters on the 2005 level”)
India laid out an elaborate plan that promises to “reduce the emissions intensity [carbon emissions per unit] of Gross Domestic Product by 33 to 35 percent by 2030” from a 2005 level, among many other things, but makes no pledge about real carbon emissions.
For its part, Russia put forward an ambitious “long-term goal of a 25 to 30 percent cut in greenhouse bases by 2030 — depending on the “maximum possible account” of how much carbon dioxide its vast forests could absorb.
The catch is that in virtually every Paris pledge — and there are 119 in all, from 147 countries — 28 European Union members submitted just one INDC — the measures, targets, baselines and goals are all vastly different, making a collective summing up virtually impossible.
Some, like China and India, prefer to express their changes in terms of energy intensity rather than cutbacks, or in a “peak” future year.
Many have chosen different “base years” for cutback comparisons: 1990 in some cases, 2005 in the case of the U.S. and a few others, and a host of other milestones: 2000, 2010, 2013, 2014, or 2015. Some, the “synthesis report” says, have targets “that are not linked to a base year.”
Others “reserve the right to revise their INDCs” depending on the final outcome of the negotiating process.
Many countries include emissions from a category known as LULUCF — U.N. shorthand for “land use, land use change and forestry,” a sweeping but extremely vague category that could imply anything from limits on agriculture to new zoning for suburbs.
However, as the synthesis report notes ponderously, “Many of the INDCs do not provide comprehensive information on the assumptions and methods applied in relation to LULUCF.” It adds that a few countries “indicated that a common framework for LULUCF accounting may be desirable.”
On the bright side, the report says, the sum of the promises point to a reduction of carbon emissions on a global average per capita basis of anywhere from 4 to 8 percent by 2025, and 5 to 9 percent by 2030.
The report doesn’t say, however, that the change comes in significant measure because global populations are still on the rise, to the tune of 1 billion additional people by 2025, with most of the increase coming in desperately poor countries that don’t produce many greenhouse gases.
In any case, the report says that no matter how dispiriting the overall news may be, it is far from the end of the apparently ceaseless climate negotiating process.
If the results of the INDCs are less than impressive — except in the rich countries where carbon cutbacks are already starting to feel draconian to many — there are always more negotiations ahead that will change things back to the right direction.
As the report notes, “The global temperature increase by the end of this century depends both on emissions up to 2030, which depends on the level of effort in the INDCs and any increase thereof, and emissions in the post-2030 period.”
Given the efforts so far, “much greater emission reductions effort than those associated with the INDCs will be required in the period after 2025 and 2030” to continue to hold on to the 2-degree C. global temperature goal.
What that might require, however, is beyond the current INDCs, and also “beyond the scope” of the “synthesis report.”