Climate change action needs bold forerunners

Major economies have to act as forerunners when it comes to limiting climate change. If the US or EU were to double their emissions reductions targets, then the world might still be able to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Elke Bunge reports on the findings of newly published study.

The world could still limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius if major economies were to double their carbon emissions targets, suggest German researchers. (Photo credit: Ian Britton, flickr)

The world could still limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius if major economies were to double their carbon emissions targets, suggest German researchers. (Photo credit: Ian Britton, flickr)

The world is running out of time. When politicians, economists and environmental scientists gather at the end of November and the beginning of December in Paris at the upcoming UN climate summit, each country’s representatives will once again come to the table with few concrete proposals to mitigate climate change. But even though everyone is keen to avoid climate change, the question that always up for debate is who has to reduce the greatest amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Debates at the last world climate summit revealed there is absolutely no consensus on this, which one of the reasons why no effectively binding agreement was reached in Copenhagen.

Industrial countries should take the lead

Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have introduced a new approach into the debate with a newly published study. They argue that if a major economy were to take the lead in implementing its climate goals, its behaviour could break the climate gridlock and other nations would follow suit.

To illustrate its approach, the PIK researchers conducted calculations with data from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to show which amount of emission reductions major economies would have to take in order to reach the stated goal.

“If either the European Union or the US would pioneer and set a benchmark for climate action by others, the negotiation logjam about fair burden sharing could be broken,” says lead author Malte Meinshausen from PIK and the University of Melbourne. “Our analysis shows that they would have to roughly double their current domestic 2030 emissions reductions targets – which would certainly require substantial efforts.”

EU has to make deep cuts

According to the scenarios proposed by PIK, the US would have to cut its national emissions reductions target by 50 per cent by 2030 instead of the current 22 to 24 per cent below 2010 levels. The target for the EU would have to be even greater: 60 per cent instead of the current 27 per cent.

Under these conditions, the IPCC goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees could be achieved, even if all other countries do not implement their agreed-upon reduction targets.

For the Potsdamer researchers, it is unlikely that China – currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – would take the lead, especially as there is a difference of opinion between Europe and the US on one side and emerging economies such as India and China on the other side on whether emissions should be reduced on an equal per capita scheme or to base cuts on historical emissions.

Warming slows economy down

American researchers recently took a different approach to the issue of climate change. A team lead by Marshall Burke from Stanford University in California analysed records from 166 countries over a 50-year period and then compared each country’s economic output in years of normal temperatures to those of unusually warm or unusually cool years. Their findings, recently published in the journal Nature, show that a country’s overall economic productivity peaks at an annual average temperature of 13 degrees Celsius.

The implications of their research for the future is grim: if global temperatures increased by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, global incomes could decline by 23 per cent relative to a world without climate change. In addition, the gap between richer countries in cool climate and poorer countries in warmer regions would continue to grow: average incomes in 40 per cent of the poorest countries could decline by up to 75 per cent. The researchers expect economic gains in only one-fifth of the richest countries.


Photo credit: Ian Britton, flickr/Creative Commons

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