Fifty-five countries met the Copenhagen Accord’s Jan. 31 deadline for committing to national emissions reductions targets, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change announced today. There were no surprises in the targets submitted, and there is a general consensus that even if all those targets are met, averting a rise in global temperature of more than 2 degrees Celsius is all but impossible.
“Greater ambition is required to meet the scale of the challenge,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer in announcing the .
The strongest commitments came from some of the world's smallest countries, like the Maldives. The low-lying island nation, at great risk from rising sea levels, set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2020.
The submitted a target of cutting its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, “in conformity” with targets to be set by Congress. That equates to about 4 percent below 1990 levels. The 27-nation European Union pledged to reduce emissions 20 percent below its 1990 levels, increasing that to 30 percent if other countries agree to binding targets. Australia also made its target contingent on other countries, with an unconditional 5 percent below 2000 levels and as much as 25 percent with global participation.
Among , India and China both affirmed their pledges to lower their carbon intensity, or carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product — China at 40 to 45 percent of 2005 levels, and India at 20 to 25 percent of 2005 levels. Brazil repeated a pledge it signed into law to reduce emissions as much as 20 percent below 2005 levels.
But all these promises combined will not slow warming to the extent needed to avoid the most drastic and damaging effects of climate change.
“The Copenhagen Accord, whatever that ends up being, is not going to be enough to avoid two degrees,” said John-Michael Cross, a research associate at the Climate Institute. “There seems to be not a lot to it at the moment: a lot of pretty language but not a lot of numbers, and it doesn’t really seem to provide a good strategy to get us where we need to go.”
Three separate reports in December analyzed the proposed emissions cuts compared to the amounts necessary to stay below 2 degrees and found gaps of anywhere from two to eight gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. The entire global emissions output needs to come down from a projected total of almost 60 gigatons to the range of 40 to 44. Even if the high end of all the submitted targets are met, that gap will not close completely.
If the international negotiations process is, at least for the moment, falling flat, then how can the world meet the goals truly needed to keep the world below 2 degrees C?
Education and Leadership
The first answer is to keep working toward a legally binding agreement late this year at the next major meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, COP16 in Mexico City.
If the United States changes its strategy in the coming months, it could have beneficial results, said Kyle Ash, a policy analyst at Greenpeace.
“I’m not as pessimistic as other people are leading up to Mexico,” he told SolveClimate. “In the past, the president signs a treaty and then advocates for the position at home. That’s the element that we’re not seeing yet, [President Obama] is not campaigning publicly for climate policy. If he did that, that would be the wild card that would really change things politically in the U.S., and therefore the international climate debate as well.”
With this in mind, Greenpeace — which issued a condemning the weak targets affirmed to the UNFCCC — is focusing on education surrounding some specific climate-related issues, including ocean acidification and what Ash called the “myth of clean coal.”