Climate Change: Policies that are killing the planet, by Martin Khor

  • 2013

The current temperature is 0.8 degrees above the preindustrial level and we are already witnessing the important detrimental effects, which give us a hint of how it will become a world with two and up to four degrees more temperature . The one that our children and grandchildren could inherit.

A key threshold has just been crossed in the records that measure the progress of global warming: for the first time since measurements began in 1958 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded four hundred parts per million (ppm). This means that for every million molecules in Earth's atmosphere, there are four hundred molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2).

On May 9, the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, which is often used as a reference point, recorded a reading of 400.03 ppm. The global average is estimated to exceed four hundred ppm next year.

The concentration of CO2 in the air is related to the Earth's temperature. The general consensus is that for global warming to be below two degrees Celsius compared to the level before the industrial revolution of 1750, CO2 must not exceed the level of four hundred and fifty ppm. In fact, according to prominent scientists like James Hansen above three hundred and fifty ppm is already dangerous. Therefore, it is necessary to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, although it is not clear how this could be achieved.

Effects of the change.

The effects of climate change are already dramatically felt with the increase in extreme weather events, ranging from increased rainfall and large floods in Pakistan, China, Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom, to droughts in some parts of Africa and the United States, violent fires in Australia and Russia, and major storms or hurricanes in the Philippines, Central America and the United States.

How much worse will the situation be as climate change worsens as a result of the increase in CO2 concentration from four hundred to four hundred fifty ppm and more?

The increase in concentration has been drastic. In 1958 it was three hundred fifteen ppm and in 2000 it reached about three hundred seventy-five ppm, before jumping to the current four hundred ppm. At this rate, we are on track to increase the temperature by the end of the century not two degrees but between three and five degrees. A catastrophe.

The current temperature is 0.8 degrees above the pre-industrial level and we are already witnessing the important detrimental effects, which give us a clue of how a world with two and up to four degrees of temperature would become. The one that our children and grandchildren could inherit.

The 2012 report of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) on the "emissions gap", prepared by fifty-five scientists, shows that the total global emission in 2011 was fifty gigatons (50, 000 million tons) of CO2 equivalent. That is, CO2 plus other greenhouse gases such as methane, but expressed in terms of CO2.

The level of equivalent CO2 emissions has increased rapidly. In 2000 it was forty gigatons, before increasing to 50.1 in 2011. This means that the annual global emission increased ten gigatons (twenty-five percent) in just one decade.

The UNEP report estimates that in order to keep the planet's temperature at two degrees below the pre-industrial level, annual global emissions need to fall to forty-four gigatons by 2020, and then continue to decrease. However, if there are no policy changes, emissions are expected to increase to fifty-eight gigatons in 2020.

The good news is that the governments of several countries have pledged to take measures to reduce their emissions. The bad news is that those promises are not enough.

Emission Level

In the best of cases - if governments meet the maximum margin of their promises and in the best conditions - the level of emissions in 2020 will be fifty-two gigatonnes. This is well above the limit of forty-four gigatons needed to keep the temperature below the level of two degrees, although it is lower than what would be achieved if the current trend continues.

In the worst case scenario - if governments take action but within the minimum margin of their promises, and in poor conditions - the level of emissions in 2020 will be fifty-seven gigatonnes, which is almost the same as the level of fifty and eight gigatons that would be reached if everything remains unchanged.

In either case, the projected emissions for 2020 will exceed two degrees, reaching levels of three and five degrees. In other words, the projection is towards a climate disaster.

Technical solutions are not that difficult to conceptualize. The UNEP report offers suggestions on reducing emissions through changes in the practices and policies of building construction, transportation and forestry. To this can be added policies on energy, industry and agriculture.

The problem arises with the policies and costs of change. A global climate agreement is difficult to achieve due to different perspectives on what is a fair distribution of efforts and who will bear the costs. Developing countries believe that rich countries have a historical responsibility to take the lead in reducing emissions and to pay - at least substantially - the expenses that developing countries must incur to switch to technologies and policies that involve low carbon emissions.

This historical responsibility originates from the fact that developed countries are responsible until the moment of emitting most of the CO2 present in the atmosphere. They were enriched in part because their economies grew on the basis of cheap fossil fuels. And thanks to that their economies are richer.

If developing countries bear the total cost of the changes, their economic growth will suffer and their development efforts will deviate from food, health care and economic development to focus on climate-related measures. Therefore, they intend for rich countries to transfer funds and technology to support them in their shift towards a climate-friendly growth path.

Developed countries, on the other hand, are reluctant to accept "historical responsibility", on the grounds that they cannot be held responsible for what their ancestors did, in ignorance. In theory, they are willing to provide funds and technology, but in fact few funds and very little technology have been transferred to developing countries.

Developed countries also aim for all countries - not just them - to sign the same type of emission reduction obligations. Developing countries consider this to be contrary to the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, which are central principles of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.

While science is increasingly clear about what is happening to the climate, and technical solutions are being developed on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in various sectors, it is the policy to address climate change. What needs to be resolved.

Martin Khor, founder of the Third World Network and executive director of South Center, an organization of developing countries based in Geneva.

Climate Change: Policies that are killing the planet, by Martin Khor

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