President Barack Obama’s position that dangerous global warming can be averted without deeper cuts in fossil fuel emissions before 2020 is stirring backlash in nations from Norway to Barbados.
“Multiple pathways” exist to prevent temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) without countries strengthening pledges to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020, U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said at United Nations climate talks last week.
“It’s a very risky assumption, too risky,” Norway’s top climate change envoy, Henrik Harboe, said in an interview. “We know we are far below the recommendations of science.”
The question of when the world acts to contain global warming is at the heart of the talks in Durban, South Africa, where delegates from more than 190 nations are working on how to take the next steps in curbing emissions after the limits outlined in the Kyoto Protocol expire next year.
The UN says pledges to cut greenhouse gases need to double by 2020 to contain warming to 2 degrees above preindustrial levels. While scientists say a rise of 1.5 degrees may lead to “dangerous” climate shifts, countries have agreed to take steps to ensure warming doesn’t exceed the 2-degree mark.
“There are no credible scientific scenarios that will allow temperatures to be held under 2 degrees if action is taken after 2020,” Selwin Hart, an envoy from Barbados, said in an interview in Durban.
Over the past million years, warming of 4 degrees has been enough to pull the world out of ice ages, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington. Scientists say an average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees to 2.5 degrees will trigger droughts and extreme weather, putting as many as 30 percent of plant and animal species at risk of extinction.
“Even with 2 degrees Celsius it’s not going to be a vision of paradise,” Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in an interview. If emissions continue on a rising trajectory, the gain this century could be as much as 6.4 degrees, he said.
U.S. envoy Todd Stern says it sees the goal as an “important and serious goal” that should guide efforts to control climate change.
‘Look at Science’
“That is different from looking at it as an operational cap that you must meet,” Stern said at a briefing today. “I think you have as you look at science and you see the trajectory it ought to inform our sense of what needs to be done. We don’t see it as akin to a national target.”
The U.S.’s position means “much, much steeper reductions” will be needed by countries after 2020, Keya Chatterjee, director of climate negotiations for WWF, said in an interview. “It would really strain the edges of what would be doable.”
The biggest polluters are debating this week how and when to cut fossil fuel emissions.
The European Union said it won’t agree to continue under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose first phase of emissions cuts expire next year, unless all countries agree to forge a new legally binding agreement in 2015.
The U.S. says it won’t agree because China, the world’s biggest emitter, and other fast-growing economies aren’t willing to do their equal share under such a pact. Instead, the U.S. suggests countries should focus on a voluntary measures reached last year.
‘Dangerous for Humanity’
“A legally binding agreement after 2020 would be disastrous for humanity, global temperature will rise at least 4 degrees-plus,” Bangladesh Environment Minister Hasan Mahmud said in an interview.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency said last month that delaying a global deal to protect climate is a “false economy” because costs to deal with increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will surge.
“You can postpone action, but the costs will be much higher, and the impacts would be far more serious. The costs keep going up for every year of delay,” Pachauri said.
For every $1 of investment avoided before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions, the IEA said in its World Energy Outlook on Nov. 9.
If current pledged energy policies around the world are implemented, the planet is on a trajectory for warming of 3.5 degrees Celsius, it said.
“If you look at the science and you look at economic analysis, what it tells you if you delay action by a couple of years, then it makes it much more expensive,” Artur Runge-Metzger, the lead European Union envoy at the talks, said in an interview.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists say the U.S.’s position in effect means the world is “taking a pass for the next decade.”
“If we do that we’ve blown any chance of staying below 2 degrees, maybe 3 degrees,” he said.