The only three living diplomats who have led the United Nations global warming talks said there’s little chance the next climate treaty will prevent the world from overheating.
The specific goal, to hold temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), was endorsed by envoys from 190 nations in 2010. It’s considered the maximum the environment can bear before climate change becomes more dangerous. Delegates to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meet in Warsaw starting Nov. 11 to work on a treaty that could be agreed to in 2015.
The comments from the current and former executive secretaries to the UNFCCC add to the urgency of the Warsaw talks. Humans already have emitted more than half the greenhouse gases needed to surpass the 2-degree target, a panel of scientists brought together by the UN concluded in September. The World Bank last year said the planet is on track to warm by 4 degrees this century, a level that would raise the seas, worsen droughts and make storms more violent.
“There is nothing that can be agreed in 2015 that would be consistent with the 2 degrees,” said Yvo de Boer, who was UNFCCC executive secretary in 2009, when attempts to reach a deal at a summit in Copenhagen crumbled with a rift between industrialized and developing nations. “The only way that a 2015 agreement can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy.”
The Warsaw meeting will continue work toward a treaty limiting carbon dioxide emissions in all nations. The aim is to complete the text in 2015 and for targets to take effect in 2020. Even the current diplomat managing the process says success will require further steps beyond the treaty.
“I don’t think even a 2015 agreement is going to all of a sudden overnight result in a 2-degree pathway,” Christiana Figueres, the current UNFCCC executive secretary, told reporters Oct. 21 at the policy analyst Chatham House in London. “There is no agreement that is a miracle.”
Figueres, 57, who succeeded de Boer, 59, in 2010, said then that she doubted a final agreement on climate change will happen in her lifetime. At the London conference, she said a 2015 treaty must “very visibly and palpably affect the trajectory of emissions,” bringing them to a peak this decade, before declining to zero net emissions after 2050.
The challenge faced by policy makers worldwide is to reverse the rising output of greenhouse gases without hindering economic development.
Tons of Carbon
The UN Environment Program said last year that under existing policies, annual carbon emissions are on pace to reach 58 gigatons (58 billion tons) in 2020, up from 50 gigatons in 2010. More than 50 nations have made pledges that would reduce the 2020 level to 52 gigatons. To remain on track to limit warming to 2 degrees, emissions in 2020 can’t exceed 44 gigatons, UNEP said.
“The economic realities, the energy security realities, the poverty eradication realities, the access to energy realities are such that the main thing is to get as many countries as possible to make as bold a next step as they can without feeling threatened,” de Boer, now a special adviser on climate change to the accounting firm KPMG LLP, said by phone from Seoul. “By definition a 2015 outcome, even a brilliant one, must be inadequate, and it will lead to severe impacts.”
Those comments reflect “the inertia and the amount of effort it’s taking to get this change,” Samantha Smith, who leads the climate program at the environmental group WWF, said in a phone interview from Geneva. “If we’re pinning all of our hopes on an agreement in 2015 that is going to get us under 2 degrees, then we’ve got the wrong approach.”
Some nations are pushing for a lower temperature target. The 44-member Alliance of Small Island States and the 49-country bloc of Least Developed Countries say a 1.5-degree cap is needed to protect low-lying regions from the rising sea levels and more intense storms caused by climate change.
“My hunch is that we won’t be there in 2015, but we’ll hopefully take a big step toward being there,” Michael Zammit Cutajar, the first UNFCCC executive secretary, said in a phone interview from St. Julian’s, Malta. Some commentaries conclude that humans should aim for 2 degrees and prepare for 4, “which is quite a sensible suggestion,” he said.
Zammit Cutajar, 72, set up the UNFCCC secretariat in 1991, a year before the convention was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit. He was succeeded in 2002 by Joke Waller-Hunter, who died in office in 2005.
Figueres said work done outside the formal UNFCCC talks will complement a treaty. Those include bilateral efforts by the U.S. and China, the two largest emitters, to develop carbon capture and storage technology, reduce emissions of the potent global warming gases hydrofluorocarbons and increase the energy-efficiency of buildings and cities.
“An international agreement is by no means the whole answer,” U.S. lead climate envoy Todd Stern said in an Oct. 22 speech at the London climate conference. “The most important drivers of climate action are countries acting at home.”
The falling price of renewable energy may accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels and curb emissions, said former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
“The difference between renewable energy at prices above that of fossil fuels compared to renewable energy at prices below that of fossil fuels is a threshold” similar to the melting point of ice, Gore said Oct. 17 in a phone interview. “Growth in production and deployment is going to accelerate as the price continues to go down.”
To meet the 2-degree target, about two-thirds of proven fossil-fuel reserves must remain in the ground, mostly coal, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
“There is much more carbon underground than the amount which can still be released if dangerous climate change should be avoided,” Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in an interview. “The challenge is that we have to provide the right incentives to the users of coal, oil and gas to leave a remarkable amount of these fossil fuels underground.”
Under the IEA’s central forecast, about half of reserves will remain untapped, putting the planet on track to warm by 3.6 degrees, its chief economist, Fatih Birol, said.
“Paris 2015 is perhaps the last chance before we say that the 2-degree target will be almost impossible to reach,” Birol said in a phone interview. “If we have an agreement in Paris we can still theoretically have a chance to change the path.”