Everything you always wanted to know about emissions trajectories…

Well, not everything.  But you’ll find a good, almost definitive summary in The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2° C or 1.5° C? This report, organized by the UN Environment Program, basically consists of a meta-analysis of the various current studies of emissions pathways and their consequences.  It’s focused on the Copenhagen pledges (which are judged to be way too weak)  and is notable for taking proper account of 1.5ºC as well as 2ºC targets, for closely analyzing the loopholes by which the wealthy countries propose to avoid actually having to deliver on their nominal emission-reduction commitments, and for taking a good look at the need for “negative emissions” in the not too distant future.  This is not a notion that realists usually dwell on, but here it’s even defined.

The tone is a little clinical.   And there is a wee bit of soft-pedaling — for example, the range of 2020 emissions targets that is consistent with “likely” chance of holding the warming to 2ºC is judged to be 39-44 GtCO2 equivalent, which is not, actually, a range that can fairly be called “approximately 44.”  But put this aside.  The main point is that, after reading this report, you’ll know the key thing — if we’re going to squeak by, it’s going to be by way of a pathway that has no historical parallel.  The necessary rate of annual, global emissions decline alone makes this crystal clear.

This report doesn’t go into the ethical-political failings that have stalled international progress, but this is no real surprise.  These failings, though, cannot forever be set aside.  Inevitably, they will be the focus of another round of increasingly visible analysis.   They have to be.   One way or another, we’re heading into a new world.

Climate Interactive has done a nice video summary of the UNEP report.  It is here.

The Cancun Setup: One year after Copenhagen, and counting

The first thing to say about the climate negotiations – meeting soon in sunny Mexico – is that they’re teetering at the edge of what, back in the day, we used to call a “legitimation crisis.”  On every side, folks are eager to suggest that the negotiations have become a waste of time.  It’s gotten to the point that people are apologizing for going to Cancun, as if it were bad for their image to be seen at the climate talks.

Which, actually, is an odd turn of events.  Because if ever a moment was critical, it’s this one, midway through the cycle of negotiations (Copenhagen 2009, Cancun 2010, South Africa 2011) that will determine the shape and direction of the post-Kyoto climate regime.  What happens now matters, particularly because, all else being equal, the eventual end of the economic crisis will be accompanied by another rapid rise in global emissions.  The only way to avoid that rise, and many others, is to escape the logic of the business-as-usual world.  Despite the coming low-carbon energy revolution, we can’t expect to make that escape without systems of global cooperation, burden sharing and accountability to help us along, systems that can only be rooted in a fair multilateral accord.  Which is to say that the climate talks may not be fun, and may not even be the main event, but there’s no real hope without them.

Copenhagen, unfortunately, was a grave disappointment, and was quickly followed by a cascade of others: the “Climategate” fiasco, the failure of the beltway realists to deliver a US climate bill, an explosion of denialist populism on the American right, and, of course, the midterm American elections.  Even worse, from the point of view of the climate talks – the success of which depends, in the last instance, on international cost sharing – is the emergence, in Europe as well as the US, of an Austerity Panic Party that pretends, amidst unprecedented inequality and unprecedented wealth, that the North is bankrupt.  The point of the pretense?  To project a story of the future in which declining “foreign aid” is as inevitable as the decimation of domestic social services.

The discouraging pace of the international talks, in other words, is anything but unique.  Right now, nothing is working particularly well.  The US, in particular, is a model of dysfunction, and an eager player in the international “blame game,” which is now in full swing.  Nor is this a simple “climate problem.”  The truth is that the climate challenge is bound tightly to a larger political crisis, and that neither is likely to be resolved without the other.  So, to be clear – there is no “deadlock” in the global negotiations.  Nor is there a “North / South impasse.”  What we’re seeing, rather, is a political and governance disaster of the first order, and despite its many critical international dimensions, it’s a disaster that is centered in the wealthy world.

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