[1 of 2] How far are states required to go to reduce emissions? An international law perspective

Published on: June 15, 2015

Filed Under: Commentary

States are currently preparing and presenting their INDCs to the UN before the Paris talks on a new climate agreement due in November / December 2015.

There is criticism that some countries are doing too little.

Aside from the politics, is there any benchmark in international law against which country contributions can be measured? How far are states required to go to prevent ‘dangerous’ interference in the climate system?

This post suggests that the room to move, particularly for developed nations, is very limited. I approach this in a 2-step process. Firstly, this post will discuss what the overall ambition required to meet the objective of the UNFCCC is. A follow-up post will discuss a what that overall ambition requires on a ‘per state’ basis.


Part 1. What is the overall ambition that is required in Paris?

There is reasonable agreement about this first matter. Parties to the UNFCCC  have claimed to have bound themselves to an overall high level of ambition in the following steps:

  • All states have agreed that we must avoid dangerous climate change;
  • All states have agreed to be guided by the science, and in particular IPCC generated information;
  • The latest IPCC review of the science states that 2 °C above pre-industrial levels is dangerous, and there are high risks of dangerous change even above 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Consequently, the Paris agreement must deliver no more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Consistent with the science, this requires that “emissions need to be cut significantly and immediately”, in the order of 70-95% by 2050.

Considering each of these matters in turn:

  • States should not enter into an agreement in Paris that breaches Article 2 of the UNFCCC – that is, one which fails to ‘prevent’ ‘dangerous’ climate change.

The UNFCCC has established a scientific compilation process (IPCC reports) that uses extensive real world observations and extensive climate modelling . It is perhaps the largest and most detailed scientific enterprise ever undertaken. Its aim is to elaborate the effects  in detail of a straightforward and uncontentious scientific principle which has been understood since at least 1896 (if not earlier ie Tyndall’s work in 1854).

States have implicitly agreed to be guided by the results of the IPCC process.

At COP 16 all states recognized “that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science, and as documented in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and that Parties should take urgent action to meet this long-term goal, consistent with science and on the basis of equity”: Decision 1/CP.16, paragraph 4.

That COP also decided to periodically review the adequacy of this long-term global goal in the light of the ultimate objective of the Convention and set up a review process to do so: Decision 1/CP.16, paragraph 138.

The review process was also tasked with the consideration of the strengthening the long-term global goal, referencing various matters presented by the science, including in relation to a temperature rise of 1.5 °C: Decision 1/CP.16, paragraph 139(a)(iv).

The review has now reported back. Its key conclusion:

The SED has shown that limiting global warming to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels would significantly reduce the projected risks of climate change, allowing, in the light of Article 2 of the Convention, the adaptation of many ecosystems, protecting food production and enabling economic development to proceed more sustainably. However, the SED has also illustrated that, in some regions and vulnerable ecosystems, high risks are projected even for warming above 1.5 °C. We are therefore of the view that Parties would profit from restating the long-term global goal as a ‘defence line’ or ‘buffer zone’, instead of a ‘guardrail’ up to which all would be safe. This new understanding would then probably also favour emission pathways that will limit warming to a range of temperatures below 2 °C. In the very near term, such aspirations would keep open as long as possible the option of a warming limit of 1.5 °C, and would avoid embarking on a pathway that unnecessarily excludes a warming limit below 2 °C.

The Review is very clear that it is almost certain that some low lying island states who are signatories to the UNFCCC will cease to exist at 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. That in itself is unquestionably a ‘dangerous’ level of interference in the climate system.

The Review was also asked to consider “overall progress made towards achieving the long-term global goal, including a consideration of the implementation of the commitments under the Convention”. On that matter it reported:

On theme 2 of the review, the SED has clearly shown that not only are we not on track to meet the long-term global goal, but the current emission rate is accelerating. It seems advisable, including according to the many experts consulted, to scale up current mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology and capacity-building efforts so as to enable all Parties to reach the long-term global goal. To that end, emissions need to be cut significantly and immediately, in particular to minimize effort and keep it cost-effective. Additionally, since carbon neutrality should be achieved in the second half of this century in the light of the limited global CO2 budget, prompt and decisive climate action is needed. To address equity issues and make progress in reducing poverty in general, efforts need be strengthened to promote sustainable development in ways that minimize impediments from climate change by promoting mitigation as well as adaptation in an appropriate and well balanced manner and always taking into account national circumstances.

A recent report from the African Progress Panel (chaired by Kofi Annan) has put it this way:

At the greenhouse gas concentration levels in prospect under current trajectories, the likelihood of staying below 2°C is extremely small. Temperatures at the end of the 21 century could be more than 4°C above pre-industrial levels, and Sub-Saharan Africa could experience warming of 5°C above the baseline towards the end of the 21 century or in the following century.  The risks associated with such an outcome for the lives, livelihoods and security of future generations are beyond estimation. So too are the implications for Africa’s development prospects.

What would it take to get the world on track for avoiding dangerous climate change?

To summarize a complex issue briefly, retaining a likelihood of staying below 2°C will require:

  1. greenhouse gas emission reductions of 40-70 per cent by 2050 from 2010 levels, with zero emissions by 2080-2100.
  2. global energy and industry CO2 emissions reaching zero by 2060-2075.

Keeping within a 1.5°C threshold will require more exacting measures. The date for reaching zero emissions is 20 years earlier and the required cuts by 2050 are in the range 70-95 per cent. Most of the scenarios for a 1.5°C threshold involve an overshoot, with deep net emission reductions in the second half of the 21st century.

To summarise, the outcome of the review process means that, to remain consistent with Article 2 of the UNFCCC, the Paris agreement cannot deliver less than reductions of 70-95% by 2050 (ie 35 years from now) and zero emissions by 2060-2080 (where the ‘deep net emission reductions’ involves very large scale carbon capture and storage operations across tens of millions of hectares to pull back from a temporary 1.5 degree ‘overshoot’).

Tom Bennion.

The second half of this post can be read here.

Image by UN ISDR


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