What happened at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún this year? I’m trying to figure that out, and I could use your help.

But if you’re just as confused as I am, this is an easy place to start:

Climate talks wrap with hope for developing nations, Weekend Edition Saturday, National Public Radio.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

The good news is, first, that the negotiations didn’t completely collapse. That was a real fear.

Second, 190 countries agreed to start a Green Climate Fund to raise and disburse $100 billion per year to help developing countries deal with climate change… starting in 2020.

A good idea, but maybe too late. The World Bank estimates that the cost of adapting to a world that’s 2 °C warmer by 2050 will be about $75-100 billion per year. The International Energy Agency estimates that the cost of supporting clean energy technology in developing countries is $110 billion per year if we’re going to keep the temperature rise below 2 °C. But these organizations say we need to start now, not a decade from now!

And how to raise the money? The Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, leads the UN committee that’s supposed to answer this question. He told the BBC that the best approach would be a price on carbon that begins to reflect the damage it does:

Carbon pricing has a double climate effect — it’s a huge source for revenue, but also gives the right incentives for reducing emissions by making it expensive to pollute. The more ambitious we are, the higher the price will be – so there’s a very close link between the ceiling we set for emissions and the price. We estimate that we need a price of about $20/25 per tonne to mobilise the $100bn.

Third, our leaders made some steps towards saving the world’s forests. Every year, forests equal to the area of England get cut down. T This has got to stop, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, it causes 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — about the same as transportation worldwide!

Cancun set up a framework called REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degrading Emissions, with the cute little + standing for broader ecosystem conservation. This is supposed to create incentives to keep forests standing. But there’s a lot of work left. For example, while a $4.1 billion start-up fund is already in place, there’s no long-term plan for financing REDD+ yet.

The bad news? Well, the main bad news is that there’s still a gap between what countries have pledged to do to reduce carbon emissions, and what they’d need to do to keep the expected rise in temperature below 2 °C — or if you want a clearer goal, keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million.

But it’s not as bad as you might think… at least if you believe this chart put out by the Center for American Progress. They say:

We found that even prior to the Copenhagen climate summit, if all parties did everything they claimed they would do at the time, the world was only five gigatons of annual emissions shy of the estimated 17 gigatons of carbon dioxide or CO2 equivalent annual reductions needed to put us on a reasonable 2°C pathway. Since three gigatons of the projected reductions came from the economic downturn and improved projections on deforestation and peat emissions, the actual pledges of countries for additional reductions were slightly less than two-thirds of what was needed. But they were still not sufficient for the 2°C target.

and then:

After the Copenhagen Accord was finalized at the December 2009 climate summit, a January 2010 deadline was established for countries to submit pledges for actions by 2020 consistent with the accord’s 2°C goal. Two breakdowns of the pledges in February, and later in March, by Project Catalyst estimated that the five-gigaton gap had shrunk somewhat and more pledges had come in from developing countries. Part of the reason that pledges increased from developing countries was that the Copenhagen Accord had finally made a significant step forward on establishing a system of cooperation between developed and developing countries that had a chance at providing incentives for additional reductions.

And now, they say, the gap is down to 4 gigatons per year. This chart details it… click to make it bigger:

That 4-gigaton gap doesn’t sound so bad. But of course, this estimate assumes that pledges translate into reality!

So, the fingernail-biting saga of our planet continues…

10 Responses to Cancún

  1. Robert Smart says:

    Even though the financial recovery is anemic, it is enough to push oil use to levels that strain production. Some combination of high oil prices and economic crash will bring things into balance. We can safely predict that the stimulationists will say there is not enough stimulus, the deficit-reducer will say there was too much stimulus, no serious commentator will think oil production limits have anything to do with it, and (to prove this comment isn’t completely irrelevant) our CO2 emissions will go down.

    However (and we see this happening already) the pressure on governments to keep energy prices low to ameliorate the revived GFC will kill off subsidies to unworkable renewables [good thing] and see the postponement of plans to close coal power. Will the natural gas industry continue to succeed in killing off the nuclear revival as well as preventing new coal power? Hopefully we will figure out that gas is not a route to really low carbon or energy security.

  2. mitchellporter says:

    “The International Energy Agency estimates that the cost of supporting clean energy technology in developing countries is $110 billion per year if we’re going to keep the temperature rise below 2 °C.”

    Could you give a source for this a little more specific than a link to the WEO homepage?

    • John Baez says:

      Unfortunately that’s the only link provided by the source I was reading, namely an article in the Guardian. Still, that’s better than ordinary journalism, where no link at all is provided!

      I believe they were talking about the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2010 report, which is the main item available on that page I pointed to. Unfortunately that report is not free, and I was unable to find the $110 billion/year figure in the executive summary. I need to get the report at the National University of Singapore library or cough up the money to buy it myself.

      However, I urge you read the executive summary! It says, for example, that the failure at Copenhagen has cost us at least $1 trillion. I’ll quote a bunch in a separate comment.

      You can also freely download the excerpt on climate change from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2009 report. This describes a detailed strategy for keeping CO2 levels below 450 ppm, and it says this strategy would require $10.5 trillion of energy-related investment from 2010 to 2030.

  3. Phil Henshaw says:

    Right, and with the continuing relatively rapid decline in EROI further exacerbating that trend of decreasing margins and available resources for change… and climate change being the most destabilizing thing on the long term horizon with dangerous thresholds of intractability having been crossed already,… the financial stability board will belatedly realize that it’s actually *their job* to pay for fixing the problem,… just printing money in a coordinated way to pay for climate change adaptation if no other option is available… since stable multiplying energy use caused by keeping the financial growth system stable, is what directly caused the problem in the first place, that has now become the greatest long term threat to financial stability too…

  4. John Baez says:

    My main question is, how come the Center for American Progress says we’re close to getting pledges for carbon reduction sufficient to stay below 450 ppm, while other sources make this sound like a mammoth task?!

    Is the difference between pledges and reality, the difference between the Center for American Progress and other more pessimistic calculations, the difference between what we need by 2050 and what we need later, or what?

    This is why I keep stuffing information into the Azimuth Project: to build up enough of a picture of the global situation that I can understand puzzles like this. I’m getting better at it, but this puzzle has me confused.

  5. John Baez says:

    Here’s what the executive summary of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2010 report has to say about climate change. It’s pretty serious stuff. It focuses on two scenarios: a ‘New Policies Scenario’ where we do a little, and a ‘450 Scenario’ where we do enough to keep CO2 levels below 450 ppm.

    The commitments that countries have announced under the Copenhagen Accord to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions collectively fall short of what would be required to put the world onto a path to achieving the Accord’s goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 2 °C. If countries act upon these commitments in a cautious manner, as we assume in the New Policies Scenario, rising demand for fossil fuels would continue to drive up energy-related CO2, emissions through the projection period. Such a trend would make it all but impossible to achieve the 2 °C goal, as the required reductions in emissions after 2020 would be too steep. In that scenario, global emissions continue to rise through the projection period, though the rate of growth falls progressively. Emissions jump to just under 34 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2020 and over 35 Gt in 2035 – a 21% increase over the 2008 level of 29 Gt. Non-OECD countries account for all of the projected growth in world emissions; OECD emissions peak before 2015 and then begin to fall. These trends are in line with stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases at over 650 ppm CO2-equivalent, resulting in a likely temperature rise of more than 3.5 °C in the long term.

    The 2 °C goal can only be achieved with vigorous implementation of commitments in the period to 2020 and much stronger action thereafter. According to climate experts, in order to have a reasonable chance of achieving the goal, the concentration of greenhouse gases would need to be stabilised at a level no higher than 450 ppm CO2-equivalent. The 450 Scenario describes how the energy sector could evolve were this objective to be achieved. It assumes implementation of measures to realise the more ambitious end of target ranges announced under the Copenhagen Accord and more rapid implementation of the removal of fossil-fuel subsidies agreed by the G-20 than assumed in tile New Policies Scenario. This action results in a significantly faster slowdown in global energy-related CO, emissions. In the 450 Scenario, emissions reach a peak of 32 Gt just before 2020 and then slide to 22 Gt by 2035. Just ten emissions-abatement measures in five regions – the United States, the European Union, Japan, China and India – account for around half of the emission reductions throughout the Outlook period needed in this scenario compared with the Current Policies Scenario. While pricing carbon in the power and industry sectors is at the heart of emissions reductions in OECO countries and, in the longer term, other major economies (CO2 prices reach $90-120 per tonne in 2035), fossil-fuel subsidies phase-out is a crucial pillar of mitigation in the Middle East, Russia and parts of Asia. The power-generation sector’s share of global emissions drops from 41% today to 24% by 1035, spearheading the decarbonisation of the global economy. By contrast, the transport sector’s share jumps from 23%; to 31%, as it is more costly to cut emissions rapidly than in most other sectors.

    Cutting emissions sufficiently to meet the 2 °C goal would require a far-reaching transformation of the global energy system. In the 450 Scenario, oil demand peaks just before 2020 at 88 mb/d, only 4 mb/d above current levels, and declines to 81 mb/d in 2035. There is still a need to build almost 50 mb/d of new capacity to compensate for falling production from existing fields, but the volume of oil which has to be found and developed from new sources by 2035 is only two-thirds that in the New Policies Scenario, allowing the oil industry to shelve some of the more costly and more environmentally sensitive prospective projects. Coal demand peaks before 2020, returning to 2003 levels by 2035. Among the fossil fuels, demand for natural gas is least affected, though it too reaches a peak before the end of the 2020s. Renewables and nuclear make significant inroads in the energy mix, doubling their current share to 38% in 2035. The share of nuclear power in total generation increases by about 50% over current levels. Renewable-based generation increases the most, reaching more than 45% of global generation – two-and-a-half times higher than today. Wind power jumps to almost 13%, while the combined share of solar PV and concentrated solar power reaches more than 6%. Carbon capture and storage plays an important role in reducing power-sector emissions: by 2035, generation from coal plants fitted with CCS exceeds that from coal plants not equipped with this technology, accounting for about three-quarters of the total generation from all CCS fitted plants. Biofuels and advanced vehicles also play a much bigger role than in the New Policies Scenario. By 2035, about 70% of global passenger-car sales are advanced vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars). Global energy security is enhanced by the greater diversity of the energy mix.

    I will try to present this in a more user-friendly way someday.

  6. John Baez says:

    And here’s what the executive summary of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2010 report has to say about what happened in Copenhagen:

    Failure at Copenhagen has cost us at least $1 trillion…

    Even if the commitments under the Copenhagen Accord were fully implemented, the emissions reductions that would be needed after 2020 would cost more than if more ambitious earlier targets had been pledged. The emissions reductions that those commitments would yield by 2020 are such that much bigger reductions would be needed thereafter to get on track to meet the 2 °C goal. In the 450 Scenario in this year’s Outlook, the additional spending on low·carbon energy technologies (business investment and consumer spending) amounts to $18 trillion (in year·2009 dollars) more than in the Current Policies Scenario in the period 2010-2035, and around $13.5 trillion more than in the New Policies Scenario. The additional spending compared with the Current Policies Scenario to 2030 is $11.6 trillion – about $1 trillion more than we estimated last year. In addition, global GOP would be reduced in 2030 by 1.9%, compared with last year’s estimate of 0.9%. These differences are explained by the deeper, faster cuts in emissions needed after 2020, caused by the slower pace of change in energy supply and use in the earlier period.

    …though reaching the Copenhagen goal is still (just about) achievable

    The modest nature of the pledges to cut greenhouse-gas emissions under the Copenhagen Accord has undoubtedly made it less likely that the 2 °C goal will actually be achieved. Reaching that goal would require a phenomenal policy push by governments around the world. An indicator of just how big an effort is needed is the rate of decline in carbon intensity – the amount of CO2, emitted per dollar of GOP – required in the 450 Scenario. Intensity would have to fall in 2008-2020 at twice the rate of 1990-2008; between 2020 and 2035, the rate would have to be almost four times faster. The technology that exists today could enable such a change, but such a rate of techoological transformation would be unprecedented. And there are major doubts about the implementation of the commitments for 2020, as many of them are ambiguous and may well be interpreted in a far less ambitious manner than assumed in the 450 Scenario. A number of countries, for instance, have proposed ranges for emissions reductions, or have set targets based on carbon or energy intensity and/or a baseline of GOP that differs from that assumed in our projections. Overall, we estimate that the uncertainty related to these factors equates to 3.9 Gt of energy· related CO2 emissions in 2020, or about 12% of projected emissions in the 450 Scenario. It is vitally important that these commitments are interpreted in the strongest way possible and that much stronger commitments are adopted and acted upon after 2020, if not before. Otherwise, the 2°C goal would probably be out of reach for good.

  7. Phil Henshaw says:

    The thing all seem to overlook, even the most pessimistic climate modelers it really seems… is something quite ridiculous.

    They all fully expect both that 1) exponential growth in profits to pay for all these unexpected ballooning environmental costs of past technologies will be sustainable, and 2) that future profit generating growth won’t generate any unexpected costs. It’s as if the whole community has not been learning anything at all from the experience of the last 100 years, with growth running into all those little foothills and then ever increasing mountain ranges of “unpredictable” new kinds of costs, conflicts and complexities as we exhaust the various formerly limitless opportunities for growth.

    Both the study of how uncontrolled growth systems behave and how people repeatedly misread them are rich and fascinating subjects.

  8. […] more facts. Some of the controversy concerns the UN’s REDD+ program, which got a big boost in Cancún. “REDD” stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation — […]

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