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Binding Climate Targets? Don't Waste Your Time

Tom Zeller Jr., a 2014 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, spent 15 years as a staff writer and editor covering the intersection of politics, science and energy policy at the New York Times, National Geographic magazine and Huffington Post.
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The European Union wants every country to accept legally binding limits on carbon emissions. That's all but impossible -- and probably unnecessary.

The EU took its stance last week at climate negotiations in Lima, Peru, where delegates from more than 190 nations are attempting to establish a clear path toward a new global climate treaty. The head of the EU delegation, Elina Bardram, told her fellow negotiators that without a legal obligation, any treaty would fail to send the "necessary long-term signal."

Many climate experts agree. "We’re going to need binding commitments if we are going to achieve the sorts of reductions necessary to stabilize warming below dangerous levels," said Michael E. Mann, the American climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

Climate Change

But that's never happened, and it's unlikely to now. In the world we live in, nonbinding targets are really all that's available, and they may even prove just as effective.

The need is clearly real. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated last year that, in order to keep temperatures from rising to deeply worrying levels, no more than 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide ought to have been released from the dawn of the industrial revolution to the end of this century. We've already pumped out roughly half of that.

Throw in other gases that we're emitting, such as methane, and the remaining budget shrinks by another half or so -- leaving a little over 250 gigatons in the carbon budget. Given that collectively the world is still emitting roughly 30 gigatons annually, that would leave less than a decade for emissions to peak worldwide.

There is, of course, a lot of uncertainty in those numbers, in part because scientists aren't entirely certain how sensitive the climate system is to increasing levels of CO2. But there's little question that the margins are growing increasingly thin.

Despite that urgency, legally binding goals are too tall an order, for several reasons. The first is experience. When global climate negotiations kicked off a generation ago, the developed world was responsible for the lion's share of the carbon pollution already in the atmosphere. The Kyoto protocol was forged with that differing responsibility in mind, imposing legally binding emissions cuts on the rich world, while exempting developing nations.

It didn't work out so well. The U.S. -- at the time the planet's most prodigious carbon polluter -- never ratified the treaty, balking at fast-industrializing China's exemption from cuts. Canada summarily withdrew from the accord in 2011.

Another problem is numbers: The pool of participants has only gotten larger. The hunt for a successor pact to Kyoto is now in full swing at Lima, and for better or worse, the idea that only developed nations should be obliged to make emissions is no longer viable.

No climate accord will be reached unless all nations, rich and poor, developed and developing, sign on to curb emissions one way or another going forward. But few nations outside the European Union are anxious to see those emissions limits made legally binding at the international level -- whatever that really means. In the U.S., a Republican-controlled Senate would be highly unlikely to ratify such a treaty.   

There's also a risk that legally binding cuts would backfire. Insisting on such an approach could well prompt many developing nations to lowball their commitments, to avoid being locked in to emissions restrictions that could slow their growth out of poverty.

Does it matter that legally binding numbers are out of reach? Maybe not. A document floated by New Zealand would oblige signatories to commit to some sort of emissions reduction or mitigation schedule, based on each nation's own calculus, and then have in place some clear rules for allowing countries to monitor one another's progress.

The U.S. and China got the ball rolling this fall with mutual pledges of their own, and while there are no clear consequences for failure, supporters of this approach reckon that collective shaming would provide enough of a stick. In fact, it's arguably as big a stick as the vague threat of ill-defined sanctions for failing to meet hypothetical legal commitments.

Here's another benefit of a non-binding agreement: It might just be achievable. An analysis published last month by Harvard University's Project on Climate Change Agreements suggested that, at the very least, a fair and equitable complement of nonbinding pledges could well be achieved by the time the Paris talks get underway.

It's also possible that the international arena doesn't matter as much as everyone thinks. National and local emissions reduction programs, transportation and building efficiency upgrades, and renewable energy development continue to unfold independent of global negotiations. National and regional governments must continue to establish and grow carbon markets, of course, and activists will play a key role in agitating for reductions in fossil fuel dependence and a global price on carbon.

Sure, a tough, legally enforceable global treaty with real teeth would be preferable. It's just not very likely. "I think that the U.N. negotiations matter," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of climate advocacy 350.org. "But my sense is that the real indicators lie in the fights over things like divestment, blocking new infrastructure, and getting a price on carbon.

"The actual value of pledges is small," he added, "and as we've seen with Kyoto, even legally binding agreements don't necessarily get met."

Digging in on legally binding cuts now could well derail a process that has struggled long and mightily for meaningful progress -- and which now seems to be slouching towards achieving it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Tom Zeller at tzellerjr@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net