Mind the carbon gap

Stuart Parkinson and Peter Mumford outline just how much more action is needed by industrialised countries if we are to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

ResponsibleSci blog, 5 December 2014

There is some optimism at this year’s round of international climate negotiations, currently taking place in Peru. Negotiators have been buoyed by recent announcements by the USA, China and the European Union on their carbon emission targets (known in the jargon as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) and also pledges of billions of dollars to be paid into the Green Climate Fund to help those developing countries most at risk from climate change. While these are all steps in the right direction, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they are in any way adequate. In particular, the targets that have been announced fall far short of what would be equitable contributions to keeping global temperature change below the internationally agreed 2°C target – necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Some indication of the shortfall in pledges is given in the latest Emissions Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme. But we thought it would be useful to provide a visual example of the difference between the proposed action and the required action for closer to home. Below is a graph which highlights – using the EU as an example – the large difference between the current carbon emissions pledges and an estimate of sort of reductions that would really give us a good chance of staying below 2°C. The ‘required’ pathway is derived from figures in a recent letter to the British Prime Minister by Professor Kevin Anderson, based on data from the latest IPCC report and his research at the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester. He argues that, for carbon emission pathways to give a ‘likely’ chance of keeping below 2°C and there still to be sufficient ‘emission space’ for developing countries to alleviate poverty, the EU and other industrialised countries need to immediately begin “double-digit” (i.e. at least 10%) annual rates of reduction for energy-related carbon emissions. This implies reductions by 2030 of at least 80%, which is considerably more than the 40% reductions proposed by the EU and UK. It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to climate change, it is ultimately cumulative emissions which matter. On the graph below, this means looking at the area under the curves. An analysis of this shows that the proposed EU trajectory would emit approximately 2.5 times more carbon dioxide between now and 2050 than the ‘required’ trajectory.

So you can see that this ‘carbon gap’ is very large. Clearly, the wealthier nations of the world need to cut emissions much deeper and faster than they are currently considering...



NB It should be noted that, in the graph, the pathways cover energy-related carbon dioxide emissions only, based on the assumption that the proposed UK and EU targets – which cover all the main greenhouse gases – also apply to these carbon dioxide emissions alone.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of SGR, and holds a PhD in climate change science. Peter Mumford is an engineer at consultancy firm Arup where he leads sustainability initiatives within the office.

Thanks to Dr Maria Sharmina at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, for helpful comments on a draft of this blog.

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