COPENHAGEN COMMENTARY: What can really be done to cut emissions in time?

Posted: 9 December 2009

What kind of cuts in emissions are really needed to stop the most dangerous effects of climate change? And, importantly, how do we achieve them? These questions were put to a conference side event in Copenhagen yesterday, by our correspondent, Janet Larsen, as she reports here.

When politicians look at the need to address climate change, they often ask the question: What is politically feasible? Yesterday at an event sponsored by the Bellona Foundation, I raised a different question: What is necessary to avoid disaster?

While negotiations go on as if the world has another 40 or so years left to solve these problems, nature is telling us that we're already close to departing the relatively narrow range of temperatures in which human civilization developed. We are already outpacing the worst-case scenarios for temperature and ice melting that were laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just two years ago. Can we really afford for the temperature to rise much higher?

Scientists are now talking about the possibility of an ice-free Arctic in the summertime within the next five years (just a few years ago, they were predicting an ice-free summer in the Arctic by 2050). While white ice reflects sunlight, dark open water readily absorbs heat, warming the region. And Greenland, which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by 7 metres (23 feet), is in that very region. Even a fraction of that sea level rise would flood not only small low-lying island nations, who have banded together to deliver their desperate plea to the climate delegates, but also much of Manhattan and London.

2020 target

Here in Copenhagen some artists are trying to drive the point home with their Seven Meters exhibit that stretches strings of blinking red LED lights at the seven metre mark around the negotiations centre and throughout the city. According to the artists' website, a seven-metre rise in sea level would flood "all of the isle of Amager and big parts of Copenhagen...but already at 2 metres, as some scientists foresee can be a reality in this century, 2/3 of Amager and many areas by the coast and canals will be flooded."

Reducing emissions by 2020
Reducing emissions by 2020
What needs to be done to reduce CO2 emissions 80 per cent by 2020.
Since business as usual, what we term "Plan A", isn't working, we need a Plan B. The Earth Policy Institute has developed a plan for the world to cut net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent from 2006 levels by 2020. This could prevent atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, now at 387 parts per million (ppm), from exceeding 400 ppm. This sets the stage for making reductions to bring us back down to 350 ppm, the level that a growing number of scientists, like NASA's James Hansen and IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri, have stated is needed. The steps to reach 80 per cent reductions by 2020 are laid out in detail here, but in general they involve:
  • dramatically increasing energy efficiency (changing to more-efficient lighting alone would allow us to close more than 700 of the world's 2,600-some coal fired power plants);

  • ramping up development of renewable energy (sending coal, now the source of 40 per cent of the world's power generation, out the door, and replacing it with clean, widely-distributed, and abundant wind);

  • ending net deforestation and implementing a major tree-planting and soil-stabilization campaign worldwide.
Are the Plan B goals ambitious? Certainly. Cutting net carbon emissions 80 per cent by 2020 will require a dramatic restructuring of the world's economies, with speed and urgency comparable to the entry of the United States into World War II.

The first item on the wish list would be raising the price of carbon to more closely reflect its true cost. Tax shifting, offsetting a price on carbon emissions with a reduction in income taxes, could be an economically efficient way to raise carbon's price in a predictable fashion with incentives for improving energy efficiency.

Is a strong 2020 goal reachable? Only if we get moving soon. The challenge in Copenhagen is to align the politics with what the science tells us is necessary.

Janet Larsen is Director of Research at the Earth Policy Institute and author of our Climate Overview and Factfile. She is supplying reports from Copenhagen to the National Journal magazine and to this website.