A Peak on the Horizon

There are essentially two paths forward from here, both of them passing through Copenhagen and then heading on to a global peak and, subsequently, a rapid decline in greenhouse-gas emissions. The first, an extremely dangerous business-as-usual path, is one in which we fail to act, decisively and in time, and thus commit ourselves to disruptive, frightening, and extremely expensive near-future adjustments. It is the path to avoid, though given our history in Toronto in 1988, in Rio in 1992, and again in Kyoto in 1997 we declared climate objectives[i] that we then only half-heartedly attempted to meet it may well be the best that we can hope for.

The second path, which we would greatly prefer, we may perhaps call the path of enlightened self-interest. This is a hackneyed phrase, but it seems the only one we have for the discovery, desperately awaited but long overdue, that we really do share a single global fate. The Greenhouse Development Rights framework aims to make this path a bit more likely, by clearly expressing the intimate link between the climate crisis and the development crisis that serves as its backdrop, and then suggesting an approach by which the two might be reconciled.

This reconciliation requires, first of all, the recognition that matters are astonishingly grim. Even the staid IPCC, forced by its intergovernmental charter to a measured conservativism, made this clear in its Fourth Assessment Report, and in particular in its rollup of todays (rather thin) crop of low-emissions scenarios the only ones that preserve a decent chance of avoiding utter catastrophe. Its key observations, famous since Bali, are that, by 2020, the emissions of wealthy Annex 1 countries must decline to 25-40 percent below their 1990 levels, and that, by that same date, developing country emissions must also have deviated substantially from their baselines.[ii] Whats needed, in fact and not just rhetorically, is a global emergency mobilization.

Take 2020, then, as a line in the sand. For one thing it marks, as best we can, the outer perimeter of our fast-disappearing latitude, an unambiguous date by which global emissions must have peaked and be in rapid decline if were to have any reasonable path forward. For another, it has emerged as a key political and even existential deadline. Frankly, if we cant rouse ourselves, soon, to take it seriously, we will have made our choice. Even the IPCCs simple numbers make this quite clear.

Taking the next step allocating the burden of such rapid emission reductions among countries is where things become especially challenging. Greenhouse Developments Rights was designed to make these challenges clear, and to present a principle-based and politically viable response. It seeks to squarely face, in particular, this fundamental problem: The vast majority of the emission reductions required to prevent anthropogenic interference with the climate system must be in the developing world, where most emissions now occur and where emissions are growing most rapidly. At the same time, the development crisis, and beyond it the fundamental aspirations of the developing world, demand a vast expansion of energy services to finally eliminate endemic energy poverty, a goal that, in turn, seems inexorably to imply increased carbon emissions.

This is the core of the climate predicament, the reason why the developing countries insist that, as important as climate stabilization may be, it cannot come at the expense of their development. This, quite precisely, is the problem that must be solved before any emergency mobilization can possibly begin.

Greenhouse Development Rights is a burden sharing framework that starts not with the politics of short-term negotiating power but rather with the logic of an international impasse that demands structural resolution. Its goal is to break that impasse, and thus to engage all nations in a global mobilization. To that end, the GDRs framework, though strongly rooted in principles of justice, is extremely pragmatic. It asserts a right to sustainable development that is also, fundamentally, an appeal to political realism. Its key claim is that, unless the climate regime explicitly preserves such a right, developing country negotiators may quite justifiably conclude[iii] that they have more to lose than to gain from any truly earnest engagement with a global regime that, after all, significantly curtails access to the energy sources and technologies that historically enabled growth in the industrialized world. Theres more than this to justice, of course, much more, but the core of the GDRs approach is the simple proposition that the poor must, at a minimum, be excused from the burdens of the climate transition.

The rest of us, the worlds relatively wealthy minority, will have to step to the fore. We, after all, have both the responsibility for the climate crisis and the capacity to solve it. Whether we live in the industrialized or the developing world, were the ones who must bear the costs of the transition, not only by curbing the emissions associated with our own consumption, but also by ensuring that, as people in the underdeveloped world rise into the global middle class, they are able to do so along sustainable, low-emission paths.

Within the international climate regime, this implies a strict, legally binding, two-fold obligation. First, we must commit to deep reductions in our own domestic emissions, and if following the numbers above these seem unrealistically stringent, we must realize that it is climate science itself and not the logic of fair burden sharing that requires such stringency. The climate system does not negotiate. Second, we must support (through finance and technology) a rapid clean energy transition in the developing world, and, of course, the adaptation necessary to minimize greenhouse-related damages and suffering. Such obligations, inconvenient though they may be, follow from our outsized historical responsibility and wealth and, to generalize just a bit, everybody knows it. A great deal will depend of our willingness to recognize that at the end of the day fulfilling these obligations is in our own self-interest.

All in all, it may be a long shot. But we can take encouragement from the fact that calls for emergency mobilization are becoming common. Among energy planners and scientists, theres a buzz of new work on low-emissions scenarios.[iv] A 350 movement has emerged, and has real potential.[v] James Hansen adds practical advice, as when he challenges us to focus on the phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2.[vi] And Al Gore, of course, has added a call for the US to shift its entire electricity sector to carbon-free wind, solar and geothermal power within ten years. Analysts and citizens around the world, desperate for more such leadership, go so far as to call for a war mobilization.[vii]

But despite all this, and despite having the money and technology needed to stabilize the climate, and despite all the obvious and immediate benefits political, economic and cultural, international and domestic that would be ours if we could mobilize for a global emergency transition, the political conditions necessary to support such a transition have not yet arrived. In part, of course, this is because of the power, still strong, of the party of denial. But even among those who clearly see the climate crisis, and understand how little time we have to engage it, the development crisis still confounds. And since its the two together that set the unforgiving terms of the international impasse, the question, finally, is if well admit that any climate protection framework that remains merely a climate protection framework is doomed to failure, and ignoble failure at that. Because if were to break the impasse in time, then the post 2012 regime now being negotiated must free the developing world from its “climate protection or development” double bind. There is no choice between climate protection and human development. We shall have both, or we shall have neither.

How then do we move Its the all-important question. And while this isnt exactly an answer, perhaps it would help if we acknowledged that, one way or another, we face an emergency climate transition. The only question is if it will be a transition to dread, one marked by continued temporizing, growing levels of domestic and geopolitical tension, and ultimately sharp, extremely dangerous economic disruptions and conflicts. Or if it will come as a transition we can welcome, one that carries with it sustainability, restoration, and a real commitment to a meaningful right to development, and thus enables the global cooperation we need if were to successfully face the coming reckoning.

Tom Athanasiou (EcoEquity), Sivan Kartha (Stockholm Environment Institute), Paul Baer (EcoEquity)

August 4, 2008

[i] The Toronto meeting, the first major climate-focused meeting of scientists and high-level policy makers, called for a 20% reduction in global GHG emissions by 2005. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro gave us the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which called on Annex-1 countries to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. And, Kyoto, a Protocol to the Framework Convention, committed Annex-1 countries to binding emissions targets roughly 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

[ii] These figures entered the policy debate by way of Box 13Bow-emissions Category Im open.es. I could say more. Or we could cut these refs, as one of your reviewers suggested. I .7 in the Working Group III volume of the IPCCs Fourth Assessment Report. (http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-chapter13.pdf) For critical details, see Table TS.2 of Working Group IIIs Technical Summary (http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-ts.pdf), which shows that all category 1/A scenarios (the low-emissions group) have global emissions peaking by 2015.

[iii] The statement issued by the G5 countries (Brazil, Mexico, India, South Africa and China) after 2008s G8 meeting in Japan is particularly notable, for it contains this: Negotiations for a shared vision on long-term cooperative action at the UNFCCC, including a long-term global goal for greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions reductions, must be based on an equitable burden sharing paradigm that ensures equal sustainable development potential for all citizens of the world and that takes into account historical responsibility and respective capabilities as a fair and just approach. It is essential that developed countries take the lead in achieving ambitious and absolute greenhouse gas emissions reductions in accordance with their quantified emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol after 2012, of at least 25-40 per cent range for emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2020, and, by 2050, by between 80 and 95 per cent below those levels, with comparability of efforts among them. (Emphasis added. See http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/climate/info.service/climate.change.20080702.htm).

[iv] On the energy side, this work is everywhere. As for low-emissions scenarios proper, most of the key modeling is still emerging. But emerge it shall, for the simple reason that attention is shifting to policy scenarios that offer at least a chance of not destabilizing the Greenland ice.

[v] See, for example, www.350.org in the US and the Tallberg Forum in Europe (http://www.tallbergfoundation.org/ TALLBERGINITIATIVES/350/tabid/429/Default.aspx)

[vi] James Hansen et al, 2008, Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126

[vii] See, particularly, the last section of David Spratt & Philip Suttons Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action, Scribe, Australia, 2008. (http://www.climatecodered.net/book.html)