At the end of last year in what if the world can’t cut its carbon emissions I presented the graph reproduced below, which summarized the then-current position on the world’s attempts to cut its carbon emissions to the levels necessary to keep global warming below the 2 degrees C “dangerous interference” threshold. The world was nowhere close to meeting its target:
Figure 1: Status of efforts to cut global carbon emissions as of December 2014
The lack of progress reflected the inability of the nations of the world to agree on legally-binding reductions large enough to have a measurable impact on global emissions, which had been a recurring problem since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol exempted the developing countries from emissions cuts and placed the entire burden on the developed countries. So in advance of the make-or-break climate conference in Paris this December a new approach is being tried. Instead of committing to legally-binding targets countries are being invited to submit plans that set out what they think they might be able to achieve in the way of emissions cuts by the year 2030 while being under no compulsion to achieve them, with the hope being that this would encourage countries to submit ambitious plans that would at least get the Paris negotiations off to a good start even if they didn’t quite bring the red line down to match the blue line (Figure 1). And so far 36 countries accounting for 64% of 2014 global emissions have submitted quantifiable Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), and here I estimate how these and other yet-to-be-submitted INDCs might change the picture.
My 2030 projections are based on the national CO2 emissions data contained in the BP 2015 Statistical Review, which are shown as tons of CO2 rather than tons of carbon (tons CO2 = tons C times 3.67). They assume no major armed conflicts or global economic downturns between now and 2030.
The table below summarizes the emissions-reduction plans of 36 of the 45 countries that have so far submitted INDCs (data from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions ). These 36 countries, 28 of which are in the European Union, supply enough detail in their INDC submissions to allow 2014-2030 reductions to be quantified. Two others (Mexico and South Korea) tie their proposed emissions cuts to undefined “business as usual” scenarios, which makes them impossible to quantify (and also largely meaningless) and were excluded for this reason. The remaining seven (Andorra, Ethiopia, Gabon, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Morocco and Serbia) could not be included because their emissions are too small to register on BP’s radar:
(Note how the selection of 1990 as the base year allows Russia to increase its emissions by 7% over 2014 levels and still meet its 25-30% (I assumed 25%) “reduction” target and allows the EU28 to achieve its “at least 40%” (I assumed 45%) target by cutting its emissions only 28% over 2014 levels).
Figure 2 shows actual and projected emissions for China, the USA, the EU28 and Russia, the four largest emitters. I eyeballed a curve that peaks Chinese emissions in 2030 and straight-lined the reductions proposed by the USA, the EU28 and Russia. The same procedures were applied to the countries not shown in the Figure:
Figure 2: Actual and predicted CO2 emissions from countries that have submitted quantifiable INDCs
The projected 8% decrease in total emissions from the 36 countries is encouraging when we remember that they include the USA and Canada, which have been criticized in the past for their inaction on climate change, and China, the major source of global emissions growth since Kyoto. According to Figure 1, however, global carbon emissions must decrease by ~1,500GT/year between 2014 and 2030 if the world is to get back to the blue line, and Table 1 shows a total reduction of only ~500GT/year. (And this number includes some “paper” cuts. Russia assumes “the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests”, Norway plans to meet its target “through a collective delivery with the EU”, Switzerland plans to do so by buying carbon credits and New Zealand’s submission is contingent on the success of its “continuing investment in agricultural research”.)
The key question therefore becomes what the remaining 150-odd participating countries will submit in the way of substantive and quantifiable emissions reduction plans, but it’s unlikely they will amount to anything. Australia may submit an INDC that specifies a quantifiable cut, but maybe not a very large one. What Japan, which has rejected Kyoto and whose emissions reduction plans have been in disarray since Fukushima, will submit is unclear. The rest are developing countries which continue to insist that whatever action they take is paid for by the “rich” countries who allegedly caused global warming – one in fact gets the feeling that many of them are only in it for the money. And then there’s India, now the world’s number 4 emitter after China, the US and the EU, which has consistently stated that it’s going to burn as much fossil fuel as it takes to lift itself out of poverty. Many of these countries may choose not to submit an INDC at all (there’s no compulsion to do so) and most of those that do will submit plans that are so hedged with qualifications and uncertainties that they really don’t mean anything.
Figure 3 summarizes my best-guess projection of what global emissions will look like after all quantifiable INDCs are added in. Emissions from the 36 countries that have already submitted INDCs are as shown in Figure 2. I have assumed that emissions from “other” countries will keep growing at the historic rate of 2.9%/year:
Figure 3: Actual and predicted emissions from all countries
And superimposing the black line from Figure 3 on Figure 1 gives the orange line shown in Figure 4. The world is still nowhere close to meeting its target:
Figure 4: Status of efforts to cut global carbon emissions as of July 2015
What are we to conclude from this? That as well as not having the technology it needs to cut its emissions to “safe” levels (see the numerous Energy Matters posts on this subject) the world doesn’t even have any real interest in trying. And without the will to cut global emissions there’s no way global emissions will be cut, technology or no technology. Absent a major armed conflict or a full-fledged global depression the world is doomed to watch its carbon emissions continue to grow pretty much indefinitely.
And here’s what I suggest we do about it:
Recognize that we can’t cut global emissions anything like fast enough to stop global warming, so quit wasting time and money trying to cut them. The world has already spent trillions of dollars in fruitless emissions-cutting efforts, and spending trillions more will be equally fruitless. We therefore go back to business-as-usual, or at least to business as it used to be done before emissions started leading everyone around by the nose.
Recognize that at present our only defense against the impacts of global warming, assuming they eventuate, is adaptation. We therefore redirect the billions of dollars we presently spend each year on attempts to cut emissions towards more productive projects, such as sea walls, flood protection, improving crop resilience etc.
Continue to plan for an eventual carbon-free, sustainable future. This remains a desirable goal if only because the fossil fuels that presently power the world will at some point inevitably begin to run out. But put the research money into large-scale technologies that offer potential for such a future, not into those that don’t.
And we could of course always revisit the question of whether the impacts of plus two degrees C of post-industrial warming really are going to be as catastrophic as advertised. An objective reassessment might well lead us to conclude that we are worrying about nothing.