This article explains the first two of several issues that citizens need to understand to evaluate appropriate national responses to climate change after the Paris Agreement. Although the mainstream media in the United States and other developed countries has widely reported on some aspects of the Paris Agreement, this series will describe important issues that are largely being ignored by press coverage of the Paris deal.
The first issue is why a 25-year delay in responding to increasingly stronger scientific warnings of the danger of human-induced climate change has made the problem much more threatening. The second is the urgency of the need for hard-to-imagine action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions at all scales, that is globally, nationally, and locally, but particularly in high-emitting nations such as the United States in light of the limited amount of ghgs that can be emitted by the entire world before raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to very dangerous levels and in light of the need to fairly allocate ghg emissions reductions obligations around the world.
Media in the US has accurately reported on some positive aspects of the Paris deal including:
a. 186 nations have made commitments to reduce the threat of climate change although nations conceded in Paris that current commitments need to be upgraded to prevent dangerous climate change.
b. All nations agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” – the level beyond which scientists believe the Earth will likely begin to experience rapid global warming and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”, a warming amount which may also cause serious global harms particularly to many poor, vulnerable nations. Also the Paris Agreement says by the second half of this century, there must be a balance between the emissions from human activity such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be captured by carbon-absorbing “sinks” such as forests or carbon storage technology.
c. All countries agreed to submit updated plans that would ratchet up the stringency of emissions by 2020 and every five years thereafter.
d. Nations agreed to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets and to track progress towards the long-term goal through a robust transparency and accountability system.
e. Developed countries agreed to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to green energy and shore up their defenses against climate change impacts like drought and storms and rich nations must report every two years on their finance levels — current and intended. The document refers $100 billion a year that rich countries had previously pledged to muster by 2020 as a “floor”. Under the new agreement the amount must be updated by 2025.
The Paris Agreement has been widely and accurately portrayed in the mainstream media as creating a policy framework that has the potential to reduce the threat of climate change if nations greatly step up to what they have committed to do. (This framework could have been tightened by including more specific language on several issues proposed by some countries but rejected by others on such matters as human rights, losses and damages, legal effect of the agreement, and financing of adaptation among others, yet the framework includes provisions that these issues can be considered in the years ahead.) However, the enormity of the challenge facing humanity from climate change and the special responsibilities of high-emitting developed nations in particular has not been covered in the mainstream press at least in the United States.
II. The Urgency and Enormity of the Need to Reduce GHG Emissions
Although the mainstream media has widely reported on the fact that the national ghg emissions reductions that were made before the Paris COP are not sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees C, the media, at least in the United States, has been largely failing to report on the urgency and enormity of the need to rapidly reduce ghg emission globally and how further delays in taking action will dramatically make the problem much more threatening.
Looking at the delay caused by the climate change policy opposition in the United States is illustrative of the harm caused by political opposition to climate change policies worldwide.
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm. (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”)
The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is, of course, not only attributable to the US ghg emissions, yet the United States has played a major blocking role in preventing international action on climate change up until the recent more constructive role of the Obama administration which recently made commitments before the December Paris meeting to reduce US CO2 emissions by 26% to 28 % by 2025 below 2005 levels. However these new US commitments have not yet been implemented in the United States, and even if fully implemented still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global emissions (see report on US INDC. The US commitment, because it is based on a 2005 baseline, masks the fact that is only a mere 13-15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, the baseline used by most of the world. For a discussion of the problems with the Obama administration commitment see report Captain America)
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s commitments still face strong opposition from the US climate change political opposition and are very likely to be rejected if a Republican becomes the next US President in 2016. Furthermore as long as US ghg emissions are exceeding the US fair share of safe global emissions, US ghg emissions are making the already very perilous climate change threat worse.
A detailed description of the climate change disinformation campaign that is responsible for much of the political opposition that has been largely responsible for the over 25-year US delay in responding to the scientific warnings about the threat of climate change is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively discussed on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”
To fully understand the nature of the harm caused by this delay it is necessary to understand the policy implications of a “carbon budget” that must limit global emissions to avoid dangerous warming levels. .
To understand the policy implications of a carbon budget it is helpful to see the atmosphere as like a bathtub to the extent that it has limited volume and has been filling up with ghg so that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising in proportion to human activities which release ghgs.
CO2 levels remained relatively stable for 10,000 years before the beginning of the industrial revolution at approximately 280 ppm (the lower line in the bathtub). Human activities have been responsible from elevating CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to the current concentration of approximately 400 ppm (the second line from the bottom of the tub). Although there is considerable scientific evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is necessary to prevent very dangerous warming, a fact implicit in the recent Paris Agreement in which nations agreed to work to keep warming as close as possible from exceeding 1.5 degrees C additional warming, if the international community seeks to limit warming to 2 degrees C it must assure that global emissions do not exceed the number of tons of CO2 emissions that will raise atmospheric concentrations to levels that will cause warming of 2 degrees C. This number, that is the number of tons of CO2 emissions that can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations exceed levels that will cause dangerous climate change, is what is meant by a carbon budget.
This illustration, using figures from the most recent 2014 IPCC report, depicts that because only 800 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted by humanity before creating a 66% probability that a 2 degree C warming limit will be exceeded and humans have by 2011 already emitted 530 gigatons of CO2, there are only 270 gigatons of CO2 that may be emitted after 2011 to limit warming to 2 degrees C. (For a more detailed explanation of these figures see, Pidcock 2013)
The enormity of the challenge for the international community to keep warming from exceeding dangerous level can be understood by the fact that the remaining carbon budget is so small, that is approximately 270 gigatons of CO2, and current global ghg emissions are in excess of 10 gigatons per year and still rising, which means that even if the international community could stabilize global CO2 emissions levels there would be nothing left to allocate among all nations in 23 years. This grim fact is even bleaker if the international community concludes that it should limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, a conclusion that might become more obvious if current levels of warming start to make positive feedbacks visible in the next few years such as methane leakage from frozen tundra or more rapid loss of arctic ice.
The concept of the carbon budget explains why waiting to reduce ghg emissions levels to a certain percentage in the future is more harmful than rapid reductions earlier because the longer it takes to reduce emissions the more the remaining budget is consumed. For this reason, a joint research project between Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland recommended in Paris that national climate commitments be stated in tons of emissions over a specific period rather than percent reductions by a given date because waiting to the end of specific period to achieve percent reductions will cause the total tons of ghg emitted to be higher than if reductions are made earlier.
The enormous significance of the carbon budget can be seen from the following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The illustration depicts the enormity and urgency of global emissions reductions that would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C given the steepness of the reductions curves necessary to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C with a 50% probability (the red dotted line), 2.0 degrees C with a 66% probability (the blue dotted line), and 1.5 degrees C (the green dotted line). The steepness of these curves superimposed on actual national ghg emissions levels is an indication of the enormity of the challenge for the international community because the emissions reduction curves are much steeper than reductions that can be expected under projections of what current national commitments are likely to achieve if fully implemented. The steepness of these reductions curves is somewhat controversial because any calculation of a carbon budget which determines the steepness of the the needed reduction curve must make assumptions about when positive feedbacks in the climate system will be triggered by rising temperatures, yet these controversies are reflected in giving different probabilities about the likelihood of achieving a specific warming limit. Yet even carbon budgets which have been discussed in the carbon budget literature which have assumed lower amounts of positive feedback yield very. very steep reduction curves.
The enormous increase in the magnitude of the challenge that has been caused by delay given the limited carbon budget can be seen from a recent statement of Jim Hansen who said that “the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year. Without doubt every delay in reducing ghg emissions makes the problem more difficult and more expensive to solve. For this reason, all nations should aim to reduce ghg emissions as quickly as possible and any nation which opposes doing so on the basis of scientific uncertainty should be asked if the nation is willing to take full legal and financial responsibility for harms caused by any delay.
III. On the Additional Need to Make National GHG Emissions Allocations on the Basis of Equity
The above chart also helps explain the gross unfairness of requiring all nations to reduce by the same percentage reduction rates to achieve the globally needed emissions reductions because some nations are emitting at vastly higher per capita rates and some nations are responsible much more than others for raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to current dangerous elevated levels which are now in excess of 400 ppm CO2. .If each nation had to reduce their ghg emissions only to conform to the rates described in the reduction curves in the above chart despite their steepness, it would lead to grossly unfair results because of great differences among countries in per capita and historical emissions levels and urgent needs to increase energy consumption to escape grinding poverty in poor developing countries.
Per capita carbon levels by nations
The above chart gives some indication of huge differences in nations in per capita ghg emissions. If nations must reduce their ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, then such an allocation will freeze into place huge differences in per capita rights to emit ghg emissions into the atmosphere. If, for instance, the United States and India are required to reduce ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, for instance 90%, then the US per capita emissions of approximately 20 tons CO2 per capita would allow US citizens to emit CO2 at the rate of 2 tons per capita while the current India per capita emissions of approximately 1.8 tons per capita would mean that the Indian citizens could emit only at the rate 0.18 tons per capita even though India needs to dramatically increase its energy use to assure that hundreds of millions of people economically rise out of grinding poverty and India has comparatively done little to cause the existing problem. This result is clearly grossly unfair particularly in light of the fact that India has emitted far less tons of CO2 than most developed countries and therefore is less responsible for causing the existing problem than many developed nations. If some consideration for historical responsibility is not taken into account in allocating national responsibility for ghg emissions reductions, then those poor nations which have done very little to create the current threat of climate change will be required to shoulder a greater burden of needed global ghg emissions obligations than would be required of them if responsibility for the existing problem is not taken into account. As a result, although there are reasonable differences of opinion among nations about how to consider historical national ghg emission in determining national ghg emissions reductions allocations, including when, for instance, historical responsibility should be measured, almost all equity frameworks agree that prior levels of ghg emissions must have some consideration in national ghg allocations.There is also reasonable disagreement in the equity literature about what weight should be given to other matters that are widely considered to be valid considerations in determining fairness including the economic capability of rich countries to pay for ghg emissions reductions technologies and per capita considerations.
Yet unless fairness is taken into account in allocating national ghg targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, those nations who are mostly responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations will not be held responsible for their past ghg emissions while nations who have done almost nothing to cause the rise of atmospheric concentrations will be held equally responsible for lowering emissions.
Source, Word Resources Institute
From the above illustration it can be seen that the United States and the EU are more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations to current dangerous levels than than the rest of the world combined.
Many opponents of climate change policies argue that countries like the United States should not have to reduce their ghg emissions until China reduces its emissions by comparable amounts because China is now the largest emitter of all nations in terms of total tons, yet such an argument usually ignores the historical responsibility of countries like the United States which the following illustration reveals is more than twice as responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than China is. (For a discussion of the fact that there are both a strong ethical and legal arguments that explain why no nation may use the claim that it need not reduce its ghg emissions until other nations do so, see, Brown 2012 p 214 )
Source, Hansen, Evaluating Dangerous Climate Change
Although there is a difference of opinion in the “equity” literature about how to consider valid equity considerations including per capita, historical emissions levels, and the economic capabilities of nations to fiance non-fossil energies, all nations agree that national commitments about ghg emissions reductions must consider fairness.
For this reason the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reduce their ghg emissions “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, Article 2)
In other words, the international community has agreed that national ghg emissions reductions commitments must be based on “equity” or “fairness.”
And so as a matter of international law under the Paris Agreement, national commitments to reduce ghg emissions must be based on achieving a warming limit as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C, a requirement often referred to as the level of “ambition” but national commitments also must be based on “equity” or “fairness.” Although there are some reasonable disagreements among many engaged in climate policy debates about what “equity” or “fairness” requires, all nations have agreed that their obligations to reduce ghg emissions must consider equity or fairness principles.
However, if high-emitting nations take the “equity” and “fairness” requirement seriously, they will need to not only reduce ghg emissions at very, very rapid rates, a conclusion that follows from the steepness of the remaining budget curves alone, but also they will have to reduce their ghg emissions much faster than poor developing nations and faster than the global reductions curves entailed only by the need to stay within a carbon budget.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The above illustration prepared by the Global Commons Institute shows that even if only one equity consideration is taken into account, in this case per capita fairness, the USA ghg emissions reductions must be much faster than the rest of the world. Other organizations who have made calculations of the US fair share of the remaining carbon budget using different equity factors have concluded that the US fair share of safe global emissions is even smaller than that depicted in the above chart. For instance the following illustration prepared by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that the US fair share of global emissions, making what the authors of the report claim are moderate assumptions of what equity requires, demonstrates that equity not only requires the US to reduce its emissions to zero quickly almost immediately but that US obligations to prevent a 2 degree C rise requires the US to substantially fund ghg emissions reductions in other countries by 2025 despite achieving zero emissions by 2020.
Source Athanasiou, et al, National Fair Shares
The above illustration, following the assumptions about what equity requires made by the authors of the report about how to determine US emissions reductions obligations, leads to the conclusion not only does the United States need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020, the US must reduce its emissions by -141% from 1990 levels by 2025. National Fair Shares. p 18. This is to be achieved, according to the report, by US financial support for reductions in developing countries .
Although national ghg emissions reductions commitments that have been evaluated by different organizations which have made different assumptions about how to calculate what equity requires of nations have come to different conclusions, most evaluations of national commitments made through an equity prism done before Paris concluded that even if they high emitting nations achieve net zero emissions by 2050, they will need, as a matter of equity and justice, to help pay the costs of emissions reductions in poor developing countries or finance technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The reasons for this are that the remaining carbon budget is so small, the per capita and historical emissions of high-emitting developed nations are so large compared to poor developing countries, and the financial resources of developed countries are so large compared to poor developing countries that equity considerations demand that the high-emitting nations financially help developing nations achieve their targets.
Without doubt, if nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels required of them by ambition, that is levels required by conformance with a carbon budget necessary to assure that future warming is limited to 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C adjusted to also consider equity and fairness, the international community is faced with an extraordinarily daunting challenge. Moreover, any delay in meeting this challenge will make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement created a framework for solving the climate problem, yet the post-Paris media has poorly covered the implications for nations of what sufficient ambition and fairness should be required of nations when they formulate national climate policies if very dangerous climate change is to be avoided. As a result, there appears to be little awareness of the huge damage that will likely be caused by further delay. The research report of Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland has revealed that there appears to be little awareness around the world about what ambition and equity requires of nations when they formulate national climate change policies. As a result the international community is not likely to respond with sufficient urgency and ambition unless greater awareness of the policy implications of the need to live within a carbon budget at levels required of nations because of equity and fairness considerations.
Because of this, perhaps the most important immediate goal of climate change policy proponents is to help educate civil society and governments about the need to move urgently to make extremely rapid decreases in ghg emissions whereever governments can and to the maximum extent possible in light of the policy implications of limiting national ghg emissions to levels constrained by a carbon budget and in response to what fairness requires of nations. .
Brown. D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman Littelfield, Lantham Maryland
Brown. D. (2012) Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge/Earthscan, Oxon, England
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law