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The data says the election of a science-denier to the White House does not mean it’s gameover for addressing climate change, Colin Campbell Hunt writes.
One symptom of the rapid take-up of the climate change challenge is that large-scale events in the world, such as the United States election, are urgently evaluated for their likely impact on the race to limit global warming. But I will give that sad event the attention it deserves, and leave it to the end of this column.
Far more useful to us is the release of the 2016 Emissions Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Programme. The report gives us a comprehensive and careful assessment of our chances of keeping global warming "well below" 2degC, as agreed in Paris a year ago. (The report also assesses the chances of reaching the aspirational goal of 1.5degC, but I will focus here on the more-achievable goal of 2degC).
It assesses how far the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions offered at Paris will take us towards meeting that goal; it estimates what more we need to do to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are driving a warming planet; and points to ways in which this "emissions gap" can be filled.
As of 2014, global emissions of GHG totalled 52.7 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2eq). If we continue with "business as usual", this is estimated to reach about 65 gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide (GtCO2eq) by 2030. To keep a two-thirds chance of keeping warming within 2degC, climate models estimate that emissions growth needs to stop by 2020 (just four years from now) and be reduced to 41.8 GtCO2eq by 2030. So how far do the Paris INDC take us towards meeting that goal? If fully implemented, including contributions which are conditional on financial support for developing countries, global emissions of GHG are estimated to reach 53.4 GtCO2eq, almost exactly halfway to the target.
So the glass is either half full with optimism, or half empty in despair. To despair is lazy, and the UN report gives many reasons for optimism. First, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, cement production and other industrial uses is slowing and may have already peaked. These make up 68% of total GHG emissions, so progress here is good news. From 2000 to 2011, CO2 emissions from these sectors grew at 2.9% per annum, falling to 1.3% in 2012-14 and, for the first time, were static in 2015.
Second, some countries have made life easy for themselves by offering intended nationally determined contributions (INDC) that are less ambitious than the policies they have already adopted. (As readers may recall, New Zealand’s INDC actually allows for an increase in emissions over 1990 levels). Hence, these countries are already doing better than their INDC suggest, and will certainly be challenged to do better still as time passes and the effects of a changing climate become more severe.
Third, the large industrialised G20 countries, including the big polluters of China, the US, India and the EU, are on track to meet the target reductions in GHG they set for themselves back in 2010 at Cancun. Yes, these targets are insufficient to meet the 2degC target, but it shows that the process of setting and meeting internationally transparent targets for GHG reduction is already working.
Fourth, the emissions gap of 12-14 additional GtCO2eq that will have to be added to the Paris INDC by 2030 can be met with improvements in the efficiency with which we use energy. Studies covered in the UNEP report estimate that achievable improvements in energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport could reduce annual emissions by 5.9, 4.1 and 2.1 GtCO2eq respectively, for a total of 12.1 GtCO2eq.
To achieve these gains will require not just changes in technologies, but also changes in behaviour that we all can, and must, contribute to.
Fifth, it is no longer just governments that are making commitments to reduce emissions. Private sector organisations, cities, regions, and citizen groups are taking up the challenge in ways that have not been included in nationally recorded INDC.
So it is premature to despair for the world’s efforts to keep global warming within limits, despite the prospect of a White House inhabited by Donald Trump. The US INDC set a level of CO2eq emissions two billion tonnes below what its current policies and current emissions produce. Even if none of those reductions are achieved by 2030 (and Mr Trump will be 84 by then, and no longer president), the UNEP report shows that the needed reductions could be met from other sources.
A greater risk is that the rest of the world loses faith that we can meet the climate change challenge when the US resiles from the collective commitment. An America led by Mr Trump must certainly abandon any moral claim to global leadership, and, for as long as he is president, the rest of us are therefore free to set our own pathways to the future.
- Colin Campbell-Hunt is an emeritus professor at the CSAFE Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.