This article was originally published in Outreach Magazine. The original can be found here.
The latest UN climate negotiations are underway in Doha, Qatar but the talks need a stronger focus on energy's role in climate change. (Source: UNFCCC)
More than half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels for energy supply. Even excluding traditional biomass, fossil fuel combustion accounts for 90 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Against this background, it is surprising how limited a role energy is playing in the ongoing climate negotiations. And yet this discussion could be instrumental in refocusing the debate about what is necessary and what is possible in both the areas of climate mitigation and adaptation—bringing it back down from the current inscrutable spheres of negotiation tracks, subsidiary bodies, parallel sessions, ad-hoc working groups, and special meetings (which, let’s be frank, nobody outside the negotiators understands anymore).
First, a focus on energy shows how far we are from solving the climate crisis. Energy-related CO2 emissions grew 3.2 percent in 2011 to more than 31 gigatons—despite the economic crisis. We know that if we don’t want to lose track of the 2-degree Celsius threshold of maximum warming that would hopefully avoid major disasters, energy emissions must decline by at least one third to 20 gigatons in 2035, despite expectations that energy demand might double in the same time frame.
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Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, downplaying expectations ahead of a UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has become somewhat of a ritual in the media and even among experts – as if everyone had sworn off being optimistic about international climate action altogether. COP 18, which starts today and will last until December 7, 2012, is no exception to the rule. Why would it, given that public mobilization is nowhere near pre-Copenhagen levels, that nearly every party is satisfied with waiting until 2015 to reach a global agreement, and that negotiations are hosted by one of the most carbon-intensive nations in the world, Qatar?
COP 18's being held in Qatar appears to many as a paradox, but it also epitomizes a deepening and broadening of the global climate conversation (Source: COP18 Official Website)
With such a disconcerting lack of political urgency, one could easily come to the conclusion that man-made climate disruption isn’t that much of an existential threat after all. But over the year that has passed since COP 17 in Durban, climate change has shown that it had little intention to wait for the discussions to end before starting to unleash its devastating effects. Scientists are hesitant to point out a causal link between climate change and a specific weather event, as they should be, but the aggregated evidence for 2012 alone is simply too strong to ignore. Just in the last few weeks, a study revealed that the most pessimistic models about the future of climate change have proven to be more accurate than the optimistic ones, while the World Bank pulled the alarm on an ever more likely “4 degrees Celsius world.”
What is especially striking about international climate decision-making is how much it’s disconnected from the scientific and natural timelines. 2015 is the year greenhouse gases emissions must peak and start declining, according to the International Energy Agency, if the world is to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Ironically, it’s also the year governments have agreed on as a target for the adoption of a global treaty “with legal force” (actual implementation would come even later, in 2020). If anything, scientific expertise is used as a pretext to further delay aggressive action. Many governments are hypocritically waiting for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released in 2014, to find out what we already know – climate change is happening faster and stronger than predicted, the 2 degrees Celsius objective is sliding out of reach, and the ambition-reality gap is getting dangerously large.
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