Skip to main content

The path to Paris

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Following last week’s UN Summit on Climate Change, the Brookings Institution has published a report commenting on the outcomes of the event.

Reasons for optimism

According to the Brookings Institution, the misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations that derailed the 2009 Copenhagen conference of the parties (COP) have largely disappeared. The flawed structure of the Kyoto Protocol, which only set emission reduction targets for developed nations, has been laid to rest.

There is now broad acceptance that China and other developing economies need to adopt national emission targets, even though their higher rates of economic growth make it impossible to lower emissions on the same timeline as more developed nations.

There is also growing agreement that a comprehensive treaty imposing binding obligations, long the gold standard for climate activists, is not now achievable or necessary and that collaboration should be guided by reciprocal but unilateral national goals, backstopped by a common framework of reporting and accountability.

Reflecting confidence in this model, most nations have made diligent efforts to honour the goals they announced at Copenhagen and to transparently measure and report progress. And an earnest effort is underway to develop new goals for the next round of reduction, the Brookings Institution holds. Most major emitters will hopefully propose such goals in the first part of 2015, setting the stage for constructive negotiations to strengthen national commitments as the Paris COP approaches.

As President Obama emphasized at the UN, the US is on track to meet its Copenhagen goal of a 17% emission reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. This achievement reverses a long history of US equivocation and inaction. With US credibility on the upswing, the self defeating dynamic of prior negotiations – where US backpedalling became an excuse for inaction by the major emerging companies and vice versa – should be gone for good.

The US dilemma

Climate advocated are pressing hard for the US to propose ambitious reduction targets for 2025 or 2030. US leadership will help raise this level of ambition by other nations and the Brookings Institution holds that it is critical for the US to build on its success in meeting its 2020 target. In confirming its national commitment under the Copenhagen Accord, the US noted that pending legislation (the ill fated Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House in 2010_ called for a 30% reduction by 2025 and a 42% reduction by 2030 from 2005 levels. But the US will be hard pressed to deliver on these targets without action by Congress.

Over the long term, the potential to decarbonise the power sector remains large but the EPA Clean Power Plan, which becomes fully effective in 2030, may place an upper limit on near term emission reductions. A further decline in transportation emissions to capture the rapid progress in low/zero emitting vehicle technologies should be achievable by 2030but transportation accounts for just 28% of total US emissions. The agricultural and manufacturing sectors are large emission sources that can be controlled cost effectively but existing law provides limited tools for this purpose. The president could nonetheless commit to ambitious emission reduction targets that assume enactment of legislation but, given the prevailing congressional gridlock on climate, this approach would be controversial politically and could be perceived by other nations as lacking credibility.

Disturbing trends

Despite the progress made in regards to climate negotiations elaborated above, global emissions have grown by 61% since 1990. An increase of 2.5% is expected in 2014. At the current rate of growth, emissions are on track for a likely temperature increase of 3.1 – 5.4 °C by the end of the century, according to Brookings.

While emissions are declining in the US and EU, the trajectory in emerging economies – particularly China – is sharply upward, with improvements in emissions intensity outpaced by dramatic growth in energy consumption and economic output.

What China can do

China is currently the world’s largest emitter. Thankfully, Chinese officials have recently sent encouraging signals in regards to their willingness to limit emissions growth. China has also made impressive investments in clean energy and recognized the need to reduce reliance on coal. A few Chinese jurisdictions have even put in place cap and trade systems for greenhouse gases.

However, the imperative of high GDP growth limits the pace at which China’s power and manufacturing sectors can shrink dependence on fossil fuels while continuing to expand. Brookings explains that China may well commit to capping and then reducing emissions by a finite date but this date is likely to be at least two decades off because China cannot immediately curtail its heavy coal use. In the interim, China’s (and therefore the world’s) emissions will continue to rise, making the task of moderating global temperature increases that much more difficult.


Brookings suggests that any agreement reached in Paris will only be an incremental step, albeit a much bigger one than before, in tackling climate change. It value will lie mainly in creating a credible mechanism, supported by an unprecedented level of cooperation, to stabilize global emissions in the next 2 – 3 decades and then mount a long term effort to reduce them.

Edited from source by Emma McAleavey

Read the article online at:


Embed article link: (copy the HTML code below):