The U.S. at Durban: “Many and essentially an infinite number of emissions pathways” for 2°C target

By: Hayley Fink and Grant Tolley

The United States says over and over that it wants to “fully operationalize the Cancun Agreements”. The US negotiators phrase their position as if to say: we need to finish what we started last year; we need to do this right, before we can move on. Sounds reasonable.

But does full implementation of the Cancun Agreements preclude the adoption of a legally binding agreement? By focusing on Cancun, the US downplays its position on mitigation commitments in Durban. While the Cancun Agreements represent progress on a variety of issues and solidified voluntary mitigation pledges from Copenhagen (which are not legally binding), these actions do not ensure that the world will reduce emissions at the extraordinary rate dictated by the latest science.

A peer-reviewed scientific report released this week by UNEP entitled “Bridging the Emissions Gap” found that although the Copenhagen “country pledges help in reducing emissions to below a business-as-usual level in 2020, they are not adequate to reduce emissions to a level consistent with the 2°C target, and therefore lead to a gap. Estimates of this gap (6-11 GtCO2e) are larger than reported in the 2010 UNEP Emissions gap report.”

The 2011 IEA report corroborates the need to act now to reduce emissions to a level consistent with the 2°C target:

“If internationally coordinated action is not taken by 2017, we project that all permissible emissions in the 450 [ppm] scenario would come from the infrastructure then existing, so that all new infrastructure from then until 2035 would need to be zero-carbon, unless emitting infrastructure is retired before the end of its economic lifetime to make headroom for new investment.”

This threat of technological lock-in into a dirty energy future adds a new dimension to the sense of urgency.

In light of these recent scientific evaluations, the United States’ calls for delay are questionable. The U.S. is in essence mischaracterizing this science to support its position that the non-legally binding Copenhagen commitments are sufficient. U.S. Deputy Special Envoy Jonathan Pershing stated in a press conference last week (after noting that he was a lead author in the IPCC report chapter that outlined the necessary pre-2020 emissions reductions to lend his statement credibility) that the Copenhagen pledges can get us to the 2°C target. Furthermore, he stated that “Many and essentially an infinite number of [emissions] pathways get you there.” Well, not according to UNEP and the IEA.

However, we must cut the Obama administration some slack (facing an upcoming election with a voting populace that sidelines climate change in preference of the economy) and give partial credit for doing what it can right now given the reality of a truculent, intractable Congress (with a near-zero desire to ratify any legally-binding treaty that might have come out of Durban). The US Center at COP17 (with its hyper-expensive-looking NASA-designed “Hyperwall” made of 15 high-definition displays) has put together a number of events highlighting the positive climate action on the part of the U.S.  Several major points:

  • The White House Council on Environmental Quality hosted an event highlighting the advances made in 2011 in vehicle fuel efficiency standards, which will roughly double fuel efficiency to 54.5 MPG fleet-wide by 2025 and reduce CO2 by over 6 billion metric tons. Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, called this “the biggest single step that any nation has taken to cut global warming pollution.”
  • In January of 2012 the EPA will release new source performance standards under the Clean Air Act for power plants and stationary sources (pursuant to Mass. v. EPA).
  • President Obama has proposed a new Clean Energy Standard in which 85% of our electricity will come from “clean sources” by 2035.
  • More than $90 billion invested in clean energy by the federal government.
  • Lastly, internationally, the U.S. has ponied up to the Fast Start Finance fund that is part of the Cancun Agreement. Contributions for 2010 and 2011 amount to $5.1 billion, comprised of approximately $3.4 billion of Congressional appropriations and substantial development finance.

Yet in spite of this positive work and the fact that the US faces a difficult domestic political climate that would preclude it from accepting legally binding agreements at present, it is irresponsible to advocate for delay and to mischaracterize the ambition gap and the need for urgency prior to 2020. Given that the U.S. has committed to a goal of 2°C, one could question whether the U.S. is negotiating in good faith at this conference. It’s fine if the U.S. is not able to commit to a new legally binding agreement, but it should not seek to anchor the timeline so far in advance as to commit the rest of the world to a temperature increase it has agreed it wants to avoid.