COP22 - Global Carbon Budget

A few words about the elephant in the room--and no, not that one. The Paris Agreement is an enormous step forward, but it partially decoupled the planned emissions cuts from the choice of target 

The Other Elephant in the Room

November 15, 2016

COP22 - Global Carbon Budget

A few words about the elephant in the room--and no, not that one. The Paris Agreement is an enormous step forward, but it partially decoupled the planned emissions cuts from the choice of target (“well below” 2 degrees C temperature rise, and pursuing a goal of 1.5°C). It has always been abundantly clear that there is an enormous gap between the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) agreed to in Paris and the levels needed to achieve 1.5°C (or even a 2°C goal). These are supposed to be resolved by a ratcheting of emissions ambitions, with the process starting with a global taking of stock in 2018.

But if we already know that current INDCs will lead to something closer to 3°C global mean temperature rise by 2100--and maybe more than that--why wait? (The answer of course is a mix of insufficient effort and the fact that taking action is really, really hard, although some here ignore the second part.)

Douglas MacMartinDouglas MacMartin, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Cornell, is a member of Cornell's COP22 delegation (watch his video)

A UNEP report presented Monday on the emissions gap concludes that action is needed sooner, with a peak in global emissions occurring before 2020 in order to reduce long-term dependence on unproven negative emissions technologies late in the century. This may be plausible; global emissions have at least temporarily plateaued, due mostly to China’s emissions leveling off and declines in the U.S. and EU. Nonetheless, if we follow the INDCs (an if!), then by 2030, we will have long passed the total available cumulative carbon emissions budget for keeping temperatures below 1.5°C and be well on our way to passing 2°C.

The other elephant in the room is the recent United States election. The good news here is that U.S. emissions have been going down since 2007, and the largest drivers are state legislation on renewable energy and the price of natural gas (the upside of fracking--a much longer subject than this post would permit). As a result, the short-term impact on U.S. emissions reductions from federal action may not be severe. Federal action won’t bring back coal.

The bigger question is what happens internationally without U.S. leadership--whether other countries like China step up or whether the climate agreement falls apart. My sense is that the mood here is understandably worried but generally quite optimistic that the agreement, and progress towards reducing emissions, will continue with or without the U.S. on board.