Paris Climate Talks Avoid Scientists’ Idea of ‘Carbon Budget’

New York Times, By JUSTIN GILLIS

November 28, 2015

After two decades of talks that failed to slow the relentless pace of global warming, negotiators from almost 200 countries are widely expected to sign a deal in the next two weeks to take concrete steps to cut emissions.

The prospect of progress, any progress, has elicited cheers in many quarters. The pledges that have already been announced “represent a clear and determined down payment on a new era of climate ambition from the global community of nations,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in a statement a month ago.

Yet the negotiators gathering in Paris will not be discussing any plan that comes close to meeting their own stated goal of limiting the increase of global temperatures to a reasonably safe level.

They have pointedly declined to take up a recommendation from scientists, made several years ago, that they set a cap on total greenhouse gases as a way to achieve that goal, and then figure out how to allocate the emissions fairly. The pledges countries are making are voluntary, and were established in most nations as a compromise between the desire to be ambitious and the perceived cost and political difficulty of emissions cutbacks.

In effect, the countries are vowing to make changes that collectively still fall far short of the necessary goal, much like a patient who, upon hearing from his doctor that he must lose 50 pounds to avoid life-threatening health risks, takes pride in cutting out fries but not cake and ice cream.

The scientists argue that there is only so much carbon — in the form of exhaust from coal-burning power plants, automobile tailpipes, forest fires and the like — that the atmosphere can absorb before the planet suffers profound damage, with swaths of it potentially becoming uninhabitable.

After years of studying the issue, the experts recommended to climate diplomats in 2013 that they consider the concept of a “carbon budget” to help frame the talks. Yet the idea was quickly dismissed as politically impractical, and more recent pleas from countries like Bolivia to consider it have been ignored.

If any serious push had been made ahead of Paris to divvy up the emissions budget, the negotiators “would have all run screaming from the room,” said Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York. “So that’s not a real alternative.”

The carbon budget will probably not get much attention in Paris for simple reasons.

Wrestling with a budget would, for instance, throw into stark relief the global inequities at the heart of the climate crisis. And it would underscore just how big the problem really is, how costly the delay in tackling it has been and how inadequate the plans being discussed in Paris are for limiting the risks.

Consider, for example, that Europe, the United States and China have offered emissions-reduction pledges that are their most ambitious ever. And yet, if their plans are carried out, a recent analysis suggests those regions will use up most of the remaining room for emissions in the atmosphere, leaving relatively little for the other five billion people on the planet or their descendants.

To change that equation, the biggest polluters would have to commit to cutting their emissions at rates that would be difficult to achieve, potentially disruptive to their economies and politically unrealistic.

Moreover, any serious discussion of the carbon budget would amplify a point of serious contention, known as “climate injustice,” in the talks. It refers to the idea that poor countries bear little past responsibility for climate change but are first in line to suffer its consequences, without much capacity to protect themselves.

Many of those same countries want to develop their economies by burning some fossil fuels, but because decades of high emissions by richer countries have created such profound risks, they are under pressure to adopt costlier green energy instead.

The idea of a carbon budget is based on a goal that the nations of the world set for themselves. In hopes of heading off the worst effects of climate change, they agreed in Cancún in 2010 to try to keep the warming of the planet to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution.

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