Gigatonne gap!

sternWhether countries can agree to limit emissions sufficiently to allow the world to keep warming well below 2C is surely the most critical Copenhagen outcome. So it is timely to look at what is on the table so far, and to hold it up against what the science requires.

Over the last few days, three independent studies have set out to do just that. They all conclude that we are currently off track – although they reach differing conclusions on how big the gap is.

On Sunday, Nicholas Stern and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) came out with what, on the face of it, seems like great news. UNEP declared that here at Copenhagen, countries “may be closer than some observers realise to agreeing the emission cuts required to give the world a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2˚C.”

ECO is delighted that Lord Stern and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner are adding an optimistic note to the negotiations, and are also convinced that a fair, ambitious and binding deal is within reach. But optimism also needs to be balanced by

First, the study’s benchmark is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to 44 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020, down from today’s levels of around 47 Gt. But this gives at best a 50% chance of staying below 2˚C – it is like playing Russian roulette with three bullets in the gun.

Lord Stern’s team reckons that if the high end of all the offers on the table from both industrialised and developing countries were to be delivered, global emissions would stand at around 46 Gt in 2020. This implies that even according to Lord Stern’s estimates, there is still a gap of 2 Gt that needs to be bridged.

However, two other credible studies paint a much less rosy picture. An updated assessment by McKinsey for Project Catalyst reckons that current pledges add up to at best 49 Gt (with the bulk of the reductions coming from developing countries). And another new report by Ecofys and Potsdam Institute says that the world is headed for warming of well over 3

The differing views are perhaps not surprising – among other things defining “business as usual” is a tricky business. But perhaps the most relevant and sobering finding is that neither Project Catalyst nor Potsdam/ Ecofys see any sign of a peak in emissions before 2020. Only yesterday, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said in CoP15’s opening plenary that global emissions must peak no later than 2015.

But even if Lord Stern is right – and would dearly like to believe him – it would be a mistake to assume that his headline figures are in any way in the bag, or that they can be taken at face value. The Stern assessment assumes that negotiators make dramatic progress on two other areas – delivering new finance and closing down loopholes.

On finance, Lord Stern is clear that substantial finance and other support is needed to ensure that developing countries can realise, or go beyond, their proposed emission reductions. So far, industrialised countries’ performance in coming forward with secure, predictable and additional finance has been pitiful.

The story on loopholes is also troubling. Lord Stern assumes that all surplus emission allowances from the first Kyoto commitment period are removed from the system. But there is no sign yet of an agreement on whether, or how, this could be done. Lord assumes that LULUCF rules with environmental integrity can be agreed – but the reality is that industrialised countries are pushing ahead with a pick ‘n mix approach to LULUCF accounting. Taken together, these loopholes could drive real global emissions back up by several gigatonnes.

Last but not least, Lord Stern also assumes that all offset credits represent real, additional emission reductions – and that systems can be put in place to avoid double counting of offsets. Again, a serious dose of realism is in order.

The true gap to a “well below” 2˚C deal can be closed here in Copenhagen – but let us not be under any illusion about how much work needs to be done.