The Challenge of Limiting the Temperature Increase to 2°C

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Pitcure  from the album Flicr of {link:} Matthias Blume on WikiMedia Commons {/link}

Pitcure from {link:} davesag's Flickr album {/link}

In the last two years the international community shared the objective  to limit the increase of  mean global temperatures to 2°C above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent the risks and effects of climate change. This agreement was made in a number of international meetings: G8 2009/2010, G20 2009, UN General Assembly 2009/2010, Copenhagen Conference 2009.
The Council of the European Union, on October 29, 2010, acknowledged that to stay below 2ºC would require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak at least by 2020.  In order to limit the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations to less than 450 parts per million (ppm), global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by at least 50% compared with 1990 by 2050 and continue to decline thereafter.  The developed countries as a group should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 95% by 2050, through an intermediate legally binding quantified emission reduction commitment of 30% by 2020, with respect to 1990.
The developing countries as a whole should achieve a substantial deviation below the currently predicted emissions growth rate by 15-30% by 2020.
Furthermore, estimates based on available information such as current population projections by 2050, calculate that global average greenhouse gas emissions per capita should be reduced to around two tons  CO2 equivalent. A  gradual convergence of national per capita emissions between developed and developing countries would be necessary considering the national circumstances.

Feasible Targets? Atmospheric CO2 concentration and global emissions

The present atmospheric level of CO2 is approximately 390 ppm (NOAA, 2010).
Taking into account all the greenhouse gases, the CO2 equivalent is already 448 ppm  (EPRI, 2009, pdf) and it is expected to rise in the next years.


Until now,  efforts to reduce  carbon emissions through international legally binding agreements have not worked..
Ten years after the agreement of  the Kyoto Protocol, 1998-2007, the global emissions rose by an average of 2.5% a year. Although emissions fell in USA, Canada, Japan, EU, between 2008-2009 as the global recession took hold, they continued to grow in China, India and in the most of the developing countries. With 1.86 billion tons of CO2 emissions in 2009 (25% of the global emissions)China succeeded the USA as the world’s biggest carbon emitter.
Meanwhile India’s, emissions  have been growing at about a 5% yearly rate in the last decade,  succeeding Russia as the world’s third largest emitter.

The energy scenarios of 2030  project a significant increase in the demand for global fossil fuels as well as CO2 emissions. According to IEA World Energy Outlook 2009, the global demand grows by 40%  between 2008-2030, with coal use rising in absolute terms. The global energy demand is increasing mostly in the emerging and developing world, to sustain their economic growth and social development. CO2 emissions continue to grow (+45% in 2030) mostly from the emerging and developing world.

Nevertheless, per capita emissions in emerging and developing economies are far below those of most in  the developed world.
In 2010, per capita emissions in USA are three times larger than in China and 15 times larger than India.
Per capita emissions are a sensible indicator of the energy and social divide between the countries considering that 2 billion people in the developing world do not have access to energy.

The IEA Business As Usual scenario suggests  that after 2030, the global energy demand will continue to grow. In the Business As Usual (BAU) scenario, the “carbon neutral” energy sources (renewables, biofuels, nuclear),  combined with energy efficiency and the technology of carbon capture and storage are not sufficient to replace the fossil fuels  to meet the increasing energy demand, and fossil fuels will continue to supply more than two-thirds of the world’s energy.
Therefore, the global emissions will be larger than+ 130% with respect to 1990.

The “energy revolution” to meet the stabilization target

According to the ‘Blue Map’ scenario in 2010 Energy Technology Perspectives (IEA/ETP, pdf)

  • global greenhouse gas emissions should peak by around 2020, and decline steadily towards the 50 % cut in carbon emissions by 2050;
  • investments (public and private) in clean technologies should rise from the present $165bn a year, to $750bn in 2030 and $1.6 trillion in 2050;
  • renewables should account for 48% of power generation, nuclear 24% and plants equipped with carbon capture and storage 17%;
  • the widespread use of next-generation biofuels should replace gasoline and diesel;
  • a huge improvement in energy efficiency should reduce the energy demand growth by only  32%, compared with 84 % under the BAU;
  • the widespread introduction of electric, hybrid or fuel cells cars should account for at least 80% of all vehicles on the road;
  • stable, long-term incentives such as feed-in tariffs, loan guarantees and tax credits must be introduced to encourage the adoption of low-carbon technologies, while market barriers such as planning obstacles, building codes and red tape must be cut.

The “Blue Map”, with the convergence of the “Per Capita Emissions” issue (2 tons  in 2050, as suggested by EU)  demand immediate global action to address :

  • the “burden sharing” of 2020 peak and 2050 per capita emissions,  taking into account the present and predicted  gaps in carbon intensity and per capita between the countries;
  • the energy technologies “revolution”  in terms of  agreed and mandatory
    • international standards ( in energy efficiency, sustainable biofuels, renewable performances…..);
    • international  rules to shift the energy system towards the “carbon neutral” technologies (for example phasing out the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructures not equipped with Carbon Capture&Storage technologies and forbidding  new plants, like in the case of  CFCs under Montreal Protocol);
  • the international and domestic trade and fiscal rules, both to support low carbon technologies investments and to  avoid unfair competition and carbon leakage;
  • the establishment and the management of international financial mechanisms to support the energy security in the developing world.

The challenge is new, complex and unprecedented. An international agreement to address the issues that are needed to tackle climate change, carbon intensity of the economies,and energy security has not yet been made. The traditional format of the agreements under the Climate Change Convention (Kyoto Protocol, Copenaghen Accord) is not adequate to meet the challenge.

The “test” of complexity lies within the combination of the low carbon strategies and measures with the existing and forecasted investments in oil and gas infrastructures. Is it possible to design and manage the exit strategy from fossil fuels while tens of  trillions of dollars are invested in new energy infrastructures based on oil, sand oil, natural gas and shale gas? How will it be possible to meet the long-term lifetime of such infrastructures with the 2020 peak?
Is the combination of international regulations  and the Environmental Social Responsibility of the private energy companies enough to address the exit strategy from fossil fuels?

Another test is the “parallel” case of China and USA

According to the head of the International Energy Agency, Nobuo Tanaka, “China’s emissions need to peak by 2020. Without such commitment from China, halving CO2 emissions by 2050, is simply impossible”.
According to the Chinese government, the 2020 peak target  combined with a projected 36 % cut in coal consumption by 2050, will force China to sacrifice economic growth.
China has already pledged to reduce energy intensity (CO2 emissions/GDP) by 40-45 % by 2020.  Today China is the biggest global investor in renewables, nuclear and carbon capture&storage technologies.
In addition, China’s per capita emissions , in comparison with USA, are 3 times lower in 2010, and are predicted to be 2,5 times lower in 2020.

As noted by Amy Heinzerling of the Earth Policy Instituter, 22% of China emissions come  from the production of exported goods, while goods imported by USA are responsible for 190 million tons of emissions per year.

Further domestic and international commitments made by China can be considered only if USA and the most developed countries make proportional and comparable commitments.  These commitments also depend on the efforts supported by multilateral/bilateral technology and financial cooperation in China.
Otherwise  China’s peak of emissions will be reached between 2030-2040,  under the present domestic policies and measures.

The United States have not been able to make commitments  to reduce emissions and shift from fossil fuel to a low carbon economy.
In September 1999, the US Senate rejected the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, proposed by the Clinton Administration, considering that the international treaty would affect the energy security and the national sovereignty of USA.

In 2010, the US Senate refused to examine the draft law for the introduction of limits to CO2 emissions through a mechanism similar to the European one. This occurred because of missing cost estimates and serious concerns regarding the effects on energy security and on the national sovereignty.
Furthermore, US Senate expressed its uneasiness to accept commitments that emerging economies, such as China and India, have not shared.

Meanwhile, in 2010, the EU countries and Japan, with comparable standards of life in  USA, emit only half per capita CO2. This is a case of unfair competition by  USA with EU and Japan because of unequal commitments for the emissions reduction.

A new leadership for Europe?

The European Council on October 28 suggested  “a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, as part of a wider outcome including the perspective of the global and comprehensive framework engaging all major economies “
Perhaps it is time that the EU  acknowledge that the Kyoto format is not adequate to meet the multiple challenges of climate change, low carbon economy and energy security.
Rather than focusing on complex legal structures and the construction of a new international bureaucracy on climate change, Europe should focus on promoting international projects. These projects will face the global technological challenge using the great potential of the European integrated economy, which has already achieved important levels of efficiency and innovation.
Europe should test the possible rules and measures necessary to promote a global “de-carbonized” economy able to sustain growth and reduce emissions, building a European “Global Platform” based on the three technological pillars: energy efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear energy, also including forestry management.

In this perspective, it is necessary to work at two levels:

The national level: through common EU policies and strategies on technologies and financing measures.  In spite of the framework established by the “climate and energy package” the lack of harmonized measures for energy efficiency, efficiency standards for renewables, nuclear, energy fiscal policy, agriculture and animal husbandry, forestry management, financing for research and development, hinder the valorization and development of the European potential to build a “green” and “de-carbonized” economy;

The international level: through a new and structured European initiative for the technological cooperation with emerging economies and with USA/Canada/Japan in order to use the European platform as a “Hub” for the global innovation and dissemination of low-carbon technologies. The technological initiative could represent an evolution of the Kyoto Protocol JI and CDM mechanisms.

The Threat of Climate Change: the Need of Adaptation Measures

Waiting for USA and China,  no agreement will be effective, and tackling global climate change will be more difficult, also because of the increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
The Atmosphere CO2 stabilization at 450 ppm is difficult to achieve.
Some scientific institutions suggest the consideration of more realistic targets, taking into account that the CO2 concentration, due to carbon cycle, is the result of both the emissions and the carbon dioxide already “stored” in the atmosphere.
According to EPRI (2009), two stabilization targets could be considered, taking into account the radiative forcing and the relative increasing in the mean global temperature.

Click to enlarge

Stabilization at 550 ppm  (target 3,7) which corresponds to + 2,5 °C,  requires too strong of a commitment even if postponed, in the deviation from the emissions baseline.
Stabilization at 650 ppm ( target 4,5) which corresponds + 3 °C,  requires challenging global measures  which address the emissions reduction and the adaptation to the effects of the temperature increasing above 2°C

However, as the temperature is increasing, extreme events may occur with greater frequency and intensity.

Last summer many regions and countries  were affected by extreme events, worse than any other in the historical record, with high economic costs and the loss of thousands of lives: flooding in Pakistan, Western China, and India; heat waves in eastern USA, parts of Africa and  Asia, and Russia with unprecedented drought and fires.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the first six months of the year 2010, the average temperatures were the warmest on record, in accordance with the trend of the recent decades.
Statistics show that the added heat in the atmosphere in the last decades is the driving force for the worsening of the extreme events.

Locally, “some extreme events occurring over a relatively short time period, especially in close proximity, could mutually reinforce each other in such a way that the resulting cascade of consequences becomes a global catastrophe.” Other extreme events can have secondary consequences that generate additional, substantial damage.   Secondary consequences, in turn, can trigger tertiary consequences that further amplify the adverse consequences, and so on” (“Responding to Threats of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes”, Carolyn Kousky and others, 2009).

Pitcure from  “Climate Change and its possible security implications” – Report of the Secretary General to the General Assembly (September 2009)
Click to enlarge

Drought and/or flooding, are the best examples of extreme events, which generate multiple effects: food and water shortage, loss of cultivated areas, devastation of urbanized areas in the coastal zones, migration of the populations, regional conflicts, and political instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.
Projected climate change will seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states.
According to UN secretariat (2009) the multiplier threat of climate change should be addressed while considering the adaptation (prevention policies) and the international assistance in the case of the extreme events.
Until now, such policies  have not been put in place.
This is an additional and urgent task for the international community.

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published November 22nd, 2010
Category: Articles

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