The international efforts to take action to stop or limit climate change began at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and culminated with the Kyoto Treaty negotiated at the UNFCCC in 1997 which required that by 2013 the industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels. Developing nations (like China and India) were not required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the United States, which at the time was the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, did not sign the Kyoto Treaty. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty in 2011. In all only 36 nations were party to the Kyoto Treaty.
The goal at the Paris meeting is to set up a new climate treaty that will run from 2020-2030. This treaty will allow the nations to determine what they are prepared to do. Each nation will declare their “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) instead of the UNFCCC mandating cuts. There seems to be real political momentum to do something, but the details still need to be worked out and the developing nations are demanding a level of compensation that could derail the talks. India’s negotiators say that they would need the rest of the world to pay them between $1 trillion and $2.5 trillion by 2030 to help them adapt, and that is just India.
Known as “climate finance,” this transfer of wealth is supposed to help the developing world make the transition away from the high-emission energy sources on which their emerging and adapt to climate change. At the climate talks in Copenhagen developing countries were promised $100 billion a year to help mitigate climate change and adapt to its consequences. Around two-thirds of this money has been paid, but the developing nations want to increase this amount and have additional financial penalties for failure to meet climate goals or hold the global temperature within target range. That could prevent a deal altogether.
The only deal that could be reached is one where greenhouse gas emission reductions are voluntary and in most cases in the future. It is likely that any deal would establish an INDC base of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from willing nations and hope for more action in the future. Hard commitments to climate finance will be harder to achieve. The Obama administration has pledged to put $3 billion in the Green Climate Fund, the leading fund for aiding developing countries, but failed to get congress to approve a budget approved with $500 million in climate reparations. Most climate finance already processed has been spent on adding renewable energy.
The developing countries say highly industrialized nations need to pay for the damage to the climate by pledging enough to help the developing nations transition to lower-carbon energy and to prepare for the impacts from a warmer climate. Though it is true that the “developed” nations have emitted the lion’s share of historic greenhouse gases, they have also in the process developed the power generation technology, combustion engines and pumps and industrial equipment that all nations use. Key to the negotiations will be a tradeoff between developing countries’ demands for financing to reduce their own emissions and adapt to climate change and the insistence that every country should be required to at least work towards emission reductions.
Leaders of the climate talks are hoping to begin with the INDC base of greenhouse gas emission limits, cuts or future cuts and have the nations review their targets and see if they can do more every five years -in 2020, 2025 and 2030. Already, the G7 nations, Russia and a few other countries have indicated that they will cut emission by 80% by 2050, but none of these nations is on course to achieve those goals and to not want to be held to them legally. Also, it appears that both the United Kingdom and Germany are going to miss their 2020 renewable goals. In the U.S. the Clean Carbon Plan is being challenged in court.
There is a several year lag in accumulating all the data to estimate greenhouse gas emissions, it is not directly measured. In 1990 the world carbon emissions from burning fuel were 21.5 billion metric tonnes. By 2014 the world carbon emission from burning fuel were initially reported to be 32.3 billion metric tonnes of carbon, but since that time it was revealed by the Chinese government data that China has been burning as much as 17 % more coal annually than previously thought. So, world emissions for the last several years will have to be recalculated and revised upward and China will represent an even larger share of the global emissions, no doubt surpassing the emissions of the G-7 nations combined.
Some have argued that the shifting of manufacturing to China and India, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world recession was responsible for much of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the Kyoto Treaty participants. After all, world greenhouse gas emissions have increased by more than 50% since Kyoto. When Kyoto was signed it was believed to be a step towards limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times. This is the level of global warming that was chosen by climate scientists as a limit that mankind could safely endure. This limit is based on what scientists think will prevent the eventual drowning of many coastal cities, the disruption of agricultural climates and reductions in drinking water availability. So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius from preindustrial times.
While it is possible for most people to envision the melting of artic ice and glaciers increasing sea level and higher temperatures disrupting planting seasons, it is less obvious the connection among greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures. There are over 105 models of the planet and its climate, though the scientist keep refining the models, there remain simplifications, assumptions and things about our plant and how it responds to change that are unknown. The UNFCCC used the climate models to estimate a total amount of CO2 gigatonnes equivalents that can be released into the environment before we will blow past the 2 degree Celsius limit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that after 2011 the world would have to keep total cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases below 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents to stay within the 2 degree Celsius limit. The problem is that even UNFCCC’s numbers indicate that we will blow through that limit by 2036 even if the limits of the INDC limits are met, and that estimate was made before China disclosed that they had been burning 17% more coal than previously reported.
Even if we can somehow keep total planetary emissions below 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2100, the computer models show a global warming of between 1.3 degree Celsius to 3.9 degrees Celsius by 2100 and climbing from there. These are just the likely outcomes according to the models if we stick to the 1,000 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent budget, but it seems certain that we will bust through that budget in the next 20 years.