Whatever the outcome of the final hours of wrangling at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen, the odds are that the leaders of some of the world's richest countries will earnestly declare that they are working hard to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm) and ensure that global average temperatures don't exceed 2 degrees centigrade. Barring spectacular last-minute breakthroughs, such claims would be outlandish greenwash.
There are two problems with such claims. Firstly, is the suggestion that the current emission reduction commitments of major emitters is enough to stabilize emissions at 450 parts per million. (By way of background, the pre-industrial carbon dioxide concentrations were approximately 280ppm and current concentrations, as of November 2009, are just under 386 ppm.)
An analysis by the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was prepared on Tuesday night and subsequently leaked to the Guardian, warns that unless developed countries substantially increase their proposed emission cuts the world is on track to exceed 550 ppm and average temperature increases of 3 degrees.
Other analyses have estimated higher end points. Climate Action Tracker estimates that the current national commitments on the table would end up stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations at approximately 650ppm. Another estimate, by the Sustainability Institute, estimates that it would put the global climate on track for 780ppm.
Even if the UNFCCC's figure is the most accurate, it is a huge increase over pre-industrial levels and a lot, lot more than current concentrations.
Secondly, a bland statement that the goal is to keep the global average increase to 2 degrees masks the fact that averages can be very deceptive. Desmond Tutu, referring to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysis he had been shown, told a side event at COP15 that "to keep temperature increase in Africa to below 1.5 degrees C requires a global goal of less than 1 degree C; keeping it below 2 degrees in Africa would require a global goal of less than 1.3 degrees C. that is the crux of the matter. A global goal of about 2 degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development. And then of course there is the matter of funding mitigation and adaptation."
For this reason, the Africa Group has been an outspoken critic of the failure of the industrialized countries to put forward ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of low-lying countries vulnerable to even small increases in sea-level, have also been insistent on adopting the target of 350 ppm in order to keep global average temperature increases below 1.5 degrees increase. Without the industrialized countries putting ambitious targets on the table, China, India and Brazil have balked at taking on substantial commitments themselves.
If nothing else comes out of COP15, the strength of the advocacy for a 350 ppm limit by an increasing number of very vulnerable countries and a broad global citizens movement has profoundly changed the dynamics of the global climate change negotiations. (The 350ppm goal followed the publication of Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?, an influential paper by James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and several colleagues).
If political leaders emerge from Copenhagen claiming that they are on track for achieving a 450 ppm stabilization target, it is worth remembering that the evidence just doesn't support that. And even if they did, why would anyone proclaim that adding another 64ppm of carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere is something to be proud of, given what we already know about the impacts of current concentration levels?
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