By Chelsea Harvey
4 May 2015
(Washington Post) – When it comes to combating climate change, many scientists and policy makers focus on one major goal: cut carbon emissions enough to keep the planet’s average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above its pre-industrial level.
But a new analysis [pdf], published on Monday by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said we’re still falling short of the mark.
For years, the 2-degree target has been touted by experts as a kind of climate threshold: By staying within its confines, many argue, we can keep the planet in relatively stable condition and avoid the most dire effects of global climate change.
Currently, world leaders are developing concrete emissions reduction goals in preparation for this December’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris, where they’ll ultimately draft an international agreement to combat climate change with the goal of staying within the 2-degree mark. By contrast, if world nations were to do nothing — in other words, if we stuck to a “business as usual” trajectory — experts believe our climate could warm more than 4 degrees by the end of the century.
Three of the most heavy-hitting emissions reduction targets have already been declared by the United States, the European Union and China. The United States has resolved to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 emissions levels by 2020, and the European Union has vowed that by 2030 it will collectively cut its emissions by 40 percent compared to its 1990 levels. Meanwhile, China has claimed its carbon emissions will peak by 2030.
But according to the Grantham report, these resolutions, combined with the rest of the world’s projected future emissions, will probably not be enough to keep Earth within the 2-degree boundary.
“In thinking about where we’re going, it’s important to have an assessment now of what the sum total of those commitments might add up to,” said co-author Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and president of the British Academy.
Stern and his co-authors Rodney Boyd and Bob Ward, also of the Grantham Research Institute, calculated what global greenhouse gas emissions will be in 2030 based on the announced targets from the United States, the European Union and China, as well as energy use estimates for the rest of the world published by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Then, they compared these calculations with a report from United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) describing the kinds of emissions pathways that might allow the world to reach its 2-degree target.
The authors found that if the United States, the European Union, and China stick to their resolutions, their combined emissions in the year 2030 will be between 20.9 and 22.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. (A gigaton is a billion metric tons.) And their estimate for the rest of the world’s emissions came to about 35.4 gigatons, meaning total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 could exceed 57 gigatons.
But according to the UNEP report the authors used for comparison, global emissions in 2030 must be below 48 gigatons if we want even a 50 percent chance of hitting the 2-degree mark. (What matters is not precise emissions in 2030, but rather what emissions pathway the world is on by then, with emissions in 2030 taken as a representation of that.)
In other words, on our current trajectory, we’re unlikely to make it. [more]
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