Success of possible new agreement to address global warming will depend on governance
November 04, 2015
By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – The success of a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which may be established at COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), due to be held in Paris in December, will depend on an efficient governance system to implement it.
This was one of the main conclusions reached by researchers participating in two meetings hosted by FAPESP’s research programs on Global Climate Change (RPGCC), Bioenergy (BIOEN), and Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA) on October 6-7 at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil, to address issues that will be discussed during COP21.
“Without a system of governance, any decision made at COP21 could be as inconsequential as the Kyoto Protocol,” said Paulo Artaxo, Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Physics Institute (IF-USP), during a workshop on COP21 for journalists held on October 6 at FAPESP.
According to Artaxo, the agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% between 2008 and 2012 by the countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol was not implemented. Moreover, emissions have risen significantly since the treaty was signed in 1997 in the city of Kyoto, Japan, and ratified by 167 countries, not including the United States.
To make sure that the same does not happen to the new global agreement that will hopefully be announced at COP21, probably to begin in 2020, Artaxo said that a strong governance system must be set up to enforce compliance with the agreed greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
“Brazil and other countries, such as the US and China, have already announced the targets they plan to present to COP21, in the form of ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, or INDCs,” he explained. “If these INDCs become legal obligations in the future, who will monitor emissions to verify whether each country is or isn’t meeting its commitment?”
Annual emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, currently amount to approximately 37 gigatons (Gt) worldwide and are rising 2.5% per year, Artaxo said.
Today, the top four emitters are China, the US, the European Union and India. China is responsible for almost 25% of global CO2 emissions. India may increase emissions if it emulates China’s growth, Artaxo said.
If emissions continue to rise at the same pace, 2.5% per year, the average global temperature may rise between 3.2°C and 5.4°C during the current century owing to changes in the planet’s radiation balance, according to one of the scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
If the rise in global temperatures is to be limited to 2°C on average – with continental areas seeing a rise of 3°C because their thermal capacity is lower and they absorb less carbon than the oceans – emissions must be cut by approximately 70% from now on and reduced to zero by 2050, according to an intermediate scenario projected by the IPCC.
“If we combine the INDCs announced by Brazil, China, the US, the European Union, Mexico and Russia, which together account for some 80% of emissions today, not by a long shot will we be able to limit the rise in average temperature to 2°C and stabilize concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere of our planet,” Artaxo said.
The announced INDCs forecast an average global warming of 2.7°C by 2050 compared with pre-industrial levels, which means an increase of 3°C-3.5°C in the planet’s continental areas, he stressed.
One of the strategies that could limit global warming to 2°C in the coming decades, according to Artaxo, would be to combine a reduction in CO2 emissions with cuts in emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and ozone precursors, as well as soot.
These gases have a much shorter half-life in the atmosphere than CO2, meaning that they decay faster. The half-life of CO2 can be hundreds of years, whereas methane’s half-life is 12 years, and HFCs have a half-life of 15 years. Ozone and soot have half-lives in the order of days or weeks, Artaxo said.
“All these gases with short half-lives also contribute to atmospheric warming. If we can reduce emissions of these gases as well as CO2, the climate will benefit far more quickly. Moreover, it will be possible to reduce the number of deaths due to urban air pollution, since soot and ozone are highly toxic,” said Artaxo, who is coordinating a number of studies on measures to reduce emissions of soot, ozone precursors and methane in Latin America for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
In his opinion, it would be a mistake to expect COP21 to result in a global agreement that is capable of ensuring that the planet’s average temperature will not rise more than 2°C. Failure to do so should not be seen as a sign that the conference itself is a failure.
“COP21 will be a key milestone because it will represent the onset of a process of transformation in energy production and consumption worldwide, in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and limit global warming. Implementation of this process will take decades,” he said.
Absence of corporations
According to Jacques Marcovitch, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s School of Economics, Administration & Accountancy (FEA-USP) and its International Relations Institute, participation by the US and China for the first time in a UN climate change conference will in itself be a major step forward, regardless of whether the new global agreement is satisfactory.
The glaring absence at the COP21 negotiating table will be that of the corporate world, he said.
While the business sector participated formally in the negotiations that led up to the Montreal Protocol, established in 1985 at the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which was undertaken to cut emissions of gases responsible for ozone depletion, it has not done so during the preparations for COP21, according to Marcovitch.
“Industry bears the lion’s share of responsibility for making the transition to a low-carbon economy feasible,” he said. “That process includes energy efficiency and much greater use of renewables, especially if the commitments countries may assume at COP21 are to be met.”
To make sure that industry and corporations generally carry out their responsibilities in this area, Marcovitch argued that it will be necessary to bring the energy, chemical and petrochemical, transportation and construction industries, as well as agriculture, forestry and waste management, among other sectors, under the umbrella of the UNFCCC.
“So far, these sectors are observers and have merely been kept informed,” he said. “Now, they must engage in mitigating action both in their own countries and internationally. This will lead multinationals and large corporations in each country to implement cleaner technology while also leaning on their suppliers and distributors to do likewise.”
For Marcovitch, the main grounds on which to judge COP21 a success will be whether it results in an agreement that determines an end to subsidies for fossil fuels.
“The countries that have already announced INDCs are evidently not the ones who oppose a carbon tax, i.e., taxing products and production processes based on the amount of greenhouse gases they emit by burning fossil fuels. It’s the countries with economies that are highly dependent on oil exports – they’ve remained silent,” he said.
A successful COP21 will be a demonstration that while the world is divided on issues such as security, migration and trade, countries can still unite around an agenda to address our common environmental and climate challenges, Marcovitch concluded.