I. Introduction. The Magnitude of GHG Emissions Reductions Needed
Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected US president, there would be a urgent need for the United States to dramatically and rapidly increase its commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is so because the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent extremely dangerous climate change even though 193 countries in Paris in December 2010 agreed to try to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C but no more than 2.0°C.
Although the Obama administration’s promise to reduce US GHG emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 was applauded by the international community because it was a welcome break from the intransigence of the H.W. Bush’s administration’s lack of cooperation with the international community’s efforts to find a global solution to climate change, the Obama administration’s commitment was still far short of meeting the US fair share of safe global GHG emissions. This is so because the world must rapidly move to zero carbon emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.
CO2 emissions from energy and industry must be zero globally around 2050 for a 1.5°C limit, which is around 10-25 years earlier than for a 2°C limit. Full decarbonization for 1.5°C limit is therefore needed by mid-century, and mid-way through the second half of the century for 2°C limit. (Climate Analytics)
Thus, the international community must achieve net zero GHG emissions from the energy and industrial sectors in 33 years to have hope of limiting warming to 1.5°C and 58 years to achieve zero GHG emissions to limit to 2°C. But because global GHG emissions have not yet peaked, the challenge for the international community to reduce GHG emissions to zero in little over three decades is staggering. In addition, these civilization challenging emissions reduction needs are for the entire world. Developed countries must reduce their GHG emissions at a much more ambitious rate than poor developing countries both as a matter of equity as developed countries agreed to in the Paris Agreement and basic fairness because per capita emissions in developing countries are already so much less than developed countries.
Source: International Rivers
II. The Speed of Emissions Reductions Needed
Furthermore, not only is the magnitude of GHG emissions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change impacts civilization challenging, the speed at which these reductions must be made is also civilization challenging because every day of delay makes the problem worse as high levels of GHG emissions rapidly deplete the remaining dwindling carbon budget.
The following chart from Carbon Brief depicts the enormous importance of speed in responding to climate change if the international community can retain any hope of limiting warming to non-dangerous levels. The red, purple, and blue lines depict how much time is left to prevent warming from exceeding 3°C, 2°C, and 1.5°C with 33%, 50%, and 66% probabilities of achieving the warming limits. To limit warming to 2°C with a 66% probability at current emissions levels of approximately 40 GtC, the chart depicts that there is only 20.3 years left before the remaining carbon budget is zero. To limit warming to 1.5°C with a 66% probability at current emissions levels the chart depicts that there is only 5.2 years left before the remaining carbon budget is zero.
Although 193 countries signed the Paris Agreement promising to submit Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) to achieve the Agreement’s warming limit goals, total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to show a steady increase, reaching approximately 52.7 gigatonnes carbon diode equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2014. (UNEP, 2016, p. 14).
Although 160 nations submitted pledges before the 2015 Paris conference to reduce GHG emissions, even if fully implemented, these commitments are only consistent with staying below an increase of global temperatures of 3.2°C by 2100 and 3.0°C if commitments that were made conditional on events that have yet happened are fully implemented. (UNEP, 2016, p. 17).
The 2016 UNEP analysis of the gap between national emissions reductions commitments made before Paris in 2015 and those needed to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals concluded that there is an urgency of enhancing pre-2020 mitigation action because early action: (a) bolsters the likelihood that countries meet and exceed their existing commitments, (b) provides a more solid foundation for implementing future Nationally Determined Contributions and for continuously strengthening their ambition, (c) supports the transition towards a least-cost emissions reduction trajectory after 2020 that is consistent with the well below 2°C target, (d) is likely the last chance to keep the option of limiting global warming to 1.5°C in 2100 open, as all available scenarios consistent with the 1.5°C target imply that global greenhouse gas emissions peak before 2020. (UNEP, 2016. p. 33)
Furthermore UNEP warned that delaying aggressive action will: (a) imply that significantly higher rates of global emission reductions are required in the medium- and long-term to meet the well below 2°C target and the order of magnitude of these rates is without historic precedent, (b) reduce the ‘solution space’ and options available to society to achieve stringent emission reductions.,(c) result in greater lock-in of carbon- and energy-intensive infrastructure in the energy system and society, (d) be a disincentive for near-term learning and technology development that will be essential in the long-term, (e) translates into greater dependence on negative emissions technologies in the medium-term technologies that so far are unproven on a larger scale.(f) increases the costs of mitigation in the medium- and long-term, (g)implies greater risks of economic disruption, (h) creates greater risks of failing to meet the well-below 2°C target, and (i) is likely to be incompatible with meeting a 1.5°C target.(UNEP, 2016, p.33)
And so, to prevent vary dangerous climate change, the international community must aggressively cooperate to rapidly achieve civilization challenging reductions in GHG emissions. These emissions reductions should, as we have seen above, achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to retain hope of limiting warming to the 1.5°C warming limit target.
III. Some New Hope from Non-State Actors
Although the commitments made by national governments so far fall significantly short of achieving the 1.5 °C to 2.0°C warming limit goals of the Paris Agreement, a positive development in the last few years is the increasing number of non-state actors who have made commitments to reduce GHG emissions, some of which would achieve emissions reductions greater than those that will be achieved by the national commitments alone. Such non-state actors include: the private sector, cities, regional governments, and other subnational actors including citizen groups, all of which are referred as “non-state actors” under a new program created by the UNFCCC. The program is called NAZCA which means Non-state Actors Zone on Climate Action.
NAZCA currently identifies commitments to climate action by 2508 cities, 209 regions, 2138 corporations,260 banks and financial institutions, 238 civil society organizations, and 77 cooperative agreements which include commitments to action that are being undertaken collectively by a variety of companies, cities, and sub-national regions.
As we described in a recent entry on this website about the recently concluded Marrakech negotiations, many governments around the world reported at the Marrakech COP on new successes in installing non-fossil energy and intentions to move toward zero carbon energy systems in the years ahead. Although this writer has been attending climate negotiations since they started after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, I had never before seen at a COP such significant support for climate change programs by sub-national governments and other non-state actors.
I also heard throughout the Marrakech negotiations government and non-government organization representatives defiantly proclaim that they were going to go ahead to implement climate change policies despite the fact that US President-elect Donald Trump might prevent the United States from fulfilling its climate change obligations to the world.
IV. The Importance of Non-state Actors in the United States
This article explains that the civilization challenging magnitude of action needed to reduce GHG emissions to non-dangerous levels coupled with the speed that is needed to make significant reductions requires a much more aggressive response to climate change than national governments have been willing to commit to thus far. Yet there is some hope of the world achieving greater GHG emissions than levels currently committed to that is now visible from the expanding commitments that non-state actors are beginning to make around the world. For this reason, the international community’s best hope of reducing global GHG emissions to safe levels may depend on both nations and non-state actors ramping up their ambition on GHG emissions reductions. Therefore a call for an “all hands on deck” approach to climate change, that is an approach that calls for action by all levels of government and all sectors, including the private sector, non-government civil society organizations, and individuals to reduce GHG emissions, is currently warranted given the enormity of the scale of the problem.
Although many governments in Marrakech claimed they were going to go ahead in implementing the Paris Agreement with or without the United States under a Trump administration, the world still needs the United States to aggressively reduce its GHG emissions because approximately 17% of the world’s GHG emissions come from the United States according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
And so, in light of the fact that a Trump administration is likely to greatly disappoint the world on climate change, and given that an “all hands on deck” approach to climate change should be called for in the United States without regard to who is US President, an “all hands on deck” approach to climate change in the United States is indispensable at this moment in history to prevent enormous harm to hundreds of millions of poor vulnerable people around the world and perhaps to all of life on earth.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Until the majority of the electorate actually cast ballots against politicians who deny the reality of and threats posed by a planet getting steadily hotter, nothing meaningful will be done to halt global warming before we have to live with its consequences
Thanks for such an excellent and needed article. As you know, I have long felt an explicit discussion of urgency is needed. I think other than a few commentators emphasizing urgency, your analysis (in light of Trump) is the first and certainly most comprehensive. I hope others follow your lead.
Thank you for this. I have been saying this for some time–climate change isn’t the kind of thing where incremental changes will bring about incremental improvements. We need swift, urgent and comprehensive action–none of which we are currently poised to do politically. So what’s the answer? We’re already seeing rapid uptake of solar and wind and energy efficiency in the energy space, so that’s positive. I’m just not sure I’m optimistic at all in any of the other categories of emissions sources–land use (ag and deforestation), transportation, and then all of the feedbacks that I’m not sure we can act quickly enough to put the brakes on. Perhaps it’s time to truly organize those of us that work on climate change–I feel like we’re relatively fragmented across government, science/academia, and advocacy. As someone who works on this from the government side I don’t see a unified strategic movement–but maybe I’m stuck in my own silo.
Stop the defunding of the EPA. Only you can prevent forest facism.