Three weeks before the start of the Paris climate talks, negotiators working to craft an international agreement that will curb rising global greenhouse gas emissions are staring into a wide gulf between what countries are willing to do and what they need to do. Most countries have stepped up with pledges to meaningfully cut carbon emissions or to at least slow the growth of emission totals between 2020 and 2030. However, national commitments for the Paris talks still fall short of what’s needed to prevent the average global temperature in 2100 from being any more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of this century—the international community’s consensus benchmark for climate impact.
Worse still, the national pledges employ a hodgepodge of accounting methods that include some significant loopholes that ignore important emissions such as leaking methane from U.S. oil and gas production and underreported coal emissions from China. How the promised emissions reductions will be verified post-Paris is “a big debate right now and it makes a massive difference in the numbers,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization.
The best news out of Paris so far is that, as of last week, climate plans—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in UN-speak—had been submitted for 156 countries (129 INDCs, including a joint submission for the 28 European Union states). The 156 countries account for about 90 percent of global greenhouse emissions according to the Paris talks’ organizer, the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Broad involvement marks a dramatic contrast with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That deal, which was exclusively for developed countries, was never ratified by the United States. But in the run up to Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached a broad deal a year ago assuring that their countries would ante up; that encouraged the six of the world’s next biggest carbon emitters, including India, Brazil, and Indonesia,to step up.
The plans, by and large, propose massive shifts to from fossil fuels to renewables. Number crunching by the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute shows that the “Big 8” emitters have pledged to roughly double their use of renewable energy by 2030 compared with 2012 levels.
The INDC filed by the United States fits the pattern. It largely relies on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which mandates a one-third reduction in carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 2030. The EPA projects that coal-fired power will drop from 39 percent of the nation’s electricity supply in 2013, to 27 percent by 2030—largely thanks to the addition of renewables.
Globally speaking, the promised emissions cuts are both substantial and inadequate. Fully implementing the INDCs submitted so far would hold global temperature rise this century to about 2.7 °C above pre-industrial levels, according to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Policy consultancy Climate Interactive, in Washington, D.C., projects a 3.5 °C rise without stronger action post-2030. (These jumps include the 0.85 °C increase already recorded between 1880 and 2012.)
Those projections represent a substantial step down from the 4.5 °C net rise by 2100 that is projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based on current emissions trends. But a degree-and-a-half hotter than the 2 °C limit that world leaders agree is needed to head off the worst impacts of climate change is still significant.
And for some parties, 2 degrees Celsius remains unacceptably high. For example, that amount of warming could cause sea levels to rise far enough to devastate some small island nations such as the Maldives, and some continental coastal zones such as the Mekong Delta and the shores of Bangladesh. The Dalai Lama and other authorities representing over half a billion practicing Buddhists worldwide issued a letter calling for political leaders find the will for a more protective 1.5-°C target.
A tighter target for 2030 appears unlikely, considering that the UN climate secretariat stated categorically last month that the INDCs are not be up for discussion at Paris. But there is growing support for a belt-tightening mechanism that would continually raise ambitions post-2030. Last week, Xi Jinping and French president Francois Hollande endorsed the idea of a five-year review mechanism for INDCs.
Recent developments suggest there is room for greater ambition. California, for example, was on track to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan even before last month when legislators approved new renewable power mandates for the state’s power sector. Renewable energy’s share of California’s power generation mix is to rise from at least 33 percent in 2020 to at least 50 percent by 2030.
Unfortunately, uncounted emissions could push the global warming trajectory in the opposite direction, making the INDC-based temperature projection, predicting an increase between 2.7 °C and 3 °C, look optimistic.
Consider the underestimated methane leaks in the United States. A molecule of methane released into the atmosphere traps over 80 times as much heat within 20 years as a CO2 molecule does; after a 100-years, it will still be 28 to 34 times as potent as the longer-lived CO2 molecule. Remote sensing suggests that U.S. methane emissions are 25 to 75 percent higher than what the EPA acknowledges in its bottom-up inventory of methane sources such as oil and gas facilities, belching livestock, and landfills.
The reality of this missing methane was affirmed in July by an intensive bottom-up accounting of methane leaks at oil and gas operations in Texas’ Barnett Shale reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The study predicts that methane leaks from the Barnett are about 50 percent higher than what is reported in the EPA’s inventory.
What that means for Paris is that the U.S. INDC understates its carbon footprint and overstates some of the promised carbon reductions that rely on a switch from coal to natural gas-fired power plants. “There has been no adjustment made for this,” says Ramón Alvarez, a coauthor on the Barnett study and a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Other loopholes are seeing increased scrutiny thanks to intensifying media coverage in the run up to Paris. The New York Times reported last week that China has been undercounting coal emissions for many years.
And a series by online outlet Climate Central in October questioned emissions reductions attributed to European power plants burning U.S.-produced wood pellets instead of coal. According to the report, this accounts for almost half of what European regulators count as carbon-neutral renewable energy. But the source of wood is critical. Scientists say that power plants burning waste biomass can play a key role in reducing emissions. But Climate Central's reporting found that U.S. forests are being harvested to fuel Europe's biomass power; forest regrowth to recover the released carbon could take over a century.
There was an attempt to head off such accounting discrepancies ahead of the Paris talks by setting standardized accounting rules for INDCs, or perhaps even subjecting INDCs to a pre-Paris vetting process, according to Jennifer Morgan at WRI. Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Oklahoma last month, Morgan said those attempts failed. Countries were instead merely encouraged to be transparent in their accounting methodologies. “It was voluntary. Some did,” said Morgan.
Morgan is looking for negotiators to create a process by which a robust INDC verification mechanism will be created in the months and years ahead. She predicts that rule-making will take about two years of work post-Paris.
All of these issues make the Paris treaty look more like the end of the beginning than a final destination.
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.