Move Beyond CO2-Target Debate, Ex-Climate Chief Says

The greenhouse-gas targets pledged by nations after the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in December won’t change much before 2020 so there’s little point debating them, the man who stewarded the summit said.

International negotiations that are “painstakingly slow” are continuing, and non-binding cuts pledged by the U.S., Japan, China and European nations are “basically what we’ve got to work with for 2020,” said former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer, now an adviser for the accounting firm KPMG International.

The targets aren’t enough to curb global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has said. Even so, countries should focus on achieving what they’ve promised and making the investments needed to spur low-carbon technologies such as wind and solar power, de Boer said in an interview today in London.

“Discussions about targets have become largely irrelevant in the context of the Copenhagen outcome,” said Boer, 56. “I don’t think that we’re going to see a dramatic increase in the level of ambition.”

Squabbling over targets contributed to the failure of more than 190 nations in Copenhagen to devise a treaty. Poorer nations said developed states need to adopt more ambitious goals, while countries such as the U.S., the biggest developed emitter, said developing nations including China, which releases the most greenhouse gases, must have legal obligations.

Tipping Points

The only current treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, set targets for developed nations and led to the creation of a carbon market in Europe with emissions limits for companies including German utilities E.ON AG and RWE AG, and Centrica Plc, Britain’s biggest energy supplier. If brought in, similar rules in the U.S. could impose limits on companies such as U.S. Steel Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp.

Business has a “big contribution” to make in achieving the needed reductions, with the International Energy Agency estimating $20 trillion needs to be spent on energy infrastructure from now to 2030, according to de Boer. Developed nations are “very likely indeed” to slash emissions by 80 percent by 2050, he said.

“It’ll be slower in taking off and more extreme in subsequent reductions,” de Boer said. “In a number of areas, there really are tipping points. There is a certain electricity price which does not make wind energy viable, but go up by 2 cents, and it does. When you reach tipping points like that on wind, on solar, on battery technology, on hybrid cars, then the change will be very dramatic.”

3 Degrees of Warming

Greenhouse-gas emissions reductions pledged so far would lead to total warming of 3 degrees to 3.9 degrees Celsius, the Pew Center has said. That’s more than the 2-degree maximum sought by the U.S. and European Union and the 1.5 degrees proposed by an alliance of 43 low-lying and island nations.

Developed countries that pledged a range of reductions dependent on actions by other nations, including Australia and the 27-nation European Union, may still move up from the lower end of those pledges, de Boer said.

One of the stalling points is the absence of federal legislation in the U.S. to fight climate change, said de Boer. A climate bill stalled last year in the U.S. Senate, and such laws are unlikely to be passed in President Barack Obama’s first term of office, he said.

“I think it’s inconceivable that that legislation is considered before the midterm election, and I would be quite surprised to see that legislation get on the agenda in the current first term,” De Boer said.

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