To­ward a vi­able climate tar­get

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Last De­cem­ber in Paris, 195 gov­ern­ments reached a con­sen­sus on how to curb climate change over the com­ing decades. But, as usual when it comes to the United Na­tions, the deal that was struck was big on stated am­bi­tion, but far more mod­est when it comes to com­mit­ments to con­crete ac­tion.

The Paris climate agree­ment in­cludes a pledge to keep warm­ing “well be­low two de­grees Cel­sius above prein­dus­trial lev­els.” Fur­ther­more, at the re­quest of the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries, lan­guage was added promis­ing “to pur­sue ef­forts to limit the tem­per­a­ture in­crease to 1.5 de­grees.”

The trou­ble is that th­ese as­pi­ra­tions are not matched by the com­mit­ments called for by the treaty. In­stead, the agree­ment’s sys­tem of vol­un­tary mit­i­ga­tion pledges will al­low global emis­sions to rise un­til 2030, likely lead­ing to a warm­ing of 3-3.5C by 2100. This looks like a prime ex­am­ple of in­con­sis­tency in pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

The prob­lem lies, first and fore­most, with the goals spelled out in the agree­ment. Tar­gets like lim­it­ing warm­ing to 1.5 or 2C can­not ef­fec­tively guide pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the pub­lic. They ad­dress the whole Earth sys­tem, not in­di­vid­ual ac­tors or gov­ern­ments. By fail­ing to state ex­plic­itly what in­di­vid­ual coun­tries are re­quired to de­liver, it al­lows lead­ers to sup­port tar­gets that seem am­bi­tious, while pur­su­ing mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts that are in re­al­ity in­signif­i­cant.

No sci­en­tific for­mula can de­scribe how to bur­den of global mit­i­ga­tion eq­ui­tably among share the coun­tries, leav­ing ev­ery gov­ern­ment able to de­clare con­fi­dently that its poli­cies are in line with any given tem­per­a­ture tar­get. An eval­u­a­tion of whether the goals are be­ing at­tained can be car­ried out only on a global level, and thus no coun­try can be held re­spon­si­ble if the tar­get is missed. As a re­sult, ev­ery UN climate sum­mit con­cludes with ex­pres­sions of grave concern that the over­all ef­forts are in­ad­e­quate.

This has to change. The con­ven­tional ap­proach is to call for more con­sis­tency be­tween talk, de­ci­sions, and ac­tions. But in­con­sis­tency is in­her­ent to pol­i­cy­mak­ing. Diplo­mats and politi­cians treat talk, de­ci­sions, and ac­tions in­de­pen­dently, in or­der to sat­isfy the de­mands of a di­verse set of stake­hold­ers and to max­imise ex­ter­nal sup­port for their or­gan­i­sa­tions. In climate pol­icy, most gov­ern­ments choose a pro­gres­sive stance while talk­ing and de­cid­ing, but a more cau­tious one when it comes time to act. Am­bi­tious UN climate tar­gets have not served as a pre­req­ui­site, but as a sub­sti­tute for ac­tion. This is no rea­son to give up on climate tar­gets al­to­gether. Com­plex long-term pol­i­cy­mak­ing works only if am­bi­tious goals are in place. But tar­gets can­not be vague as­pi­ra­tional goals; they must be pre­cise, evalu­able, at­tain­able, and mo­ti­vat­ing. The Paris agree­ment it­self of­fers one pos­si­ble ap­proach. Hid­den be­hind a vaguely de­fined for­mula, a third mit­i­ga­tion tar­get has been in­tro­duced: reach­ing zero emis­sions in the sec­ond half of the cen­tury.

A tar­get of zero emis­sions tells pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the pub­lic pre­cisely what must be done, and it di­rectly ad­dresses hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Ev­ery coun­try’s emis­sions must peak, de­cline, and even­tu­ally reach zero. This pro­vides a trans­par­ent sys­tem to eval­u­ate the ac­tions not only of na­tional gov­ern­ments, but also of ci­ties, eco­nomic sec­tors, com­pa­nies, and even in­di­vid­u­als. De­fec­tion would be dis­cour­aged be­cause it is easy to see – and more im­por­tant, to ex­plain to the pub­lic – whether emis­sions are go­ing up or down.

Such

a

tar­get would

put

all

new

fos­sil-fuel-based in­fra­struc­ture un­der in­tense scru­tiny; if we need to drive emis­sions down, why build an­other coal plant or badly in­su­lated build­ing? A shared vi­sion of zero emis­sions could even spark a race to cross the fin­ish line first. Swe­den wants to be there by 2045. The United King­dom has an­nounced that it plans to come up with a zero-emis­sions tar­get soon. Ger­many might fol­low, af­ter its next elec­tions.

Sci­en­tists pre­fer ex­act thresh­olds for climate sta­bil­i­sa­tion, and pol­i­cy­mak­ers like pow­er­ful sym­bols. That is why tem­per­a­ture tar­gets dom­i­nate the global climate dis­course. But his­tory proves that this does not au­to­mat­i­cally lead to ac­tion. Re­plac­ing tem­per­a­ture thresh­olds with an ef­fort to re­duce emis­sions to zero would en­sure ac­count­abil­ity and min­i­mize po­lit­i­cal in­con­sis­tency.

There is prece­dent for such an ap­proach. The Mon­treal Pro­to­col for pro­tect­ing the ozone layer pri­mar­ily ad­dresses harmful sub­stances, try­ing to ac­cel­er­ate their phase-out, rather than defin­ing a sta­bil­i­sa­tion tar­get for the ozone layer.

The gap be­tween real-world emis­sions and what will be needed to keep warm­ing be­low the agreed-upon lim­its is rapidly widen­ing. The UN has tasked the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Climate Change to con­duct a de­tailed in­ves­ti­ga­tion of how to meet the – al­ready un­re­al­is­tic – ceil­ing of 1.5C. This im­plies a risk that the world will waste valu­able time on yet an­other de­bate about lofty goals.

What­ever our tem­per­a­ture tar­get, global emis­sions have to peak soon and de­crease af­ter­wards – all the way to zero. The Paris climate agree­ment will be re­mem­bered as a suc­cess only if we man­age to shift our fo­cus from talk to ef­fec­tive ac­tion.

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