UN negotiations on climate change could end up imposing an overall cap on the volume of carbon dioxide that countries can emit.
The notion of a “carbon budget” has been seen as too politically sensitive to be included in the UN’s forthcoming climate agreement, despite its increasing prominence in scientific discussions.
But a new document released by the UN officials chairing the process suggests that this approach could be the basis for global emissions reductions after 2020, designed to keep the world below 2C, the level deemed safe by scientists.
This would mean dividing a pool of future CO2 allowances between different countries, based on their historical responsibility and current state of development.
Labelled a non paper, the document was released on Tuesday, hours before the US and China announced an historic agreement that will see both countries curb greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
The document does not specify how large this budget would be, but the UN’s science panel confirmed in its recent report that total human emissions should not exceed 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon if the world is to remain below 2C of warming. Two thirds of this had already been emitted by 2011.
This approach makes sense scientifically because climate is sensitive not to the rate of emissions, but to the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere over time, which can take thousands of years to disappear.
But dividing the remaining budget would prove politically difficult. “I don’t know who would hold the pen [in setting out allocations of future budgets],” said UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, following the first airing of the idea.
Countries are expected to come up with their own emissions reduction targets, and have resisted the idea that it would be up to the UN to dictate their national policies.
They are expected to come forward with new proposals on tackling climate change by the first quarter of 2015.
The co-chairs also suggested that the budget could form the basis of a review of these proposals, which could be tweaked upwards if analysis revealed the reductions were not enough to keep warming below 2C.
The budget is just one of a number of options set out by the co-chairs, Artur Runge-Metzger and Kishan Kumarsingh.
Their text reflects the various options for the UN agreement which countries put forward at the recent round of negotiations in Bonn in October.
They also suggest that emissions reductions promises could be guided by a global target to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Less ambitiously, they suggest that proposals could be based on an aim to reduce emissions by 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050.
These suggestions will be discussed more thoroughly in December, when countries meet in Lima for their penultimate conference before they are slated to sign the UN’s climate deal in Paris next year.
Another challenge for negotiators will be the scope of their contributions: should they just make promises related to emissions reductions, or should they also make equivalent pledges on adaptation, technology and finance?
It is important that the question is resolved, because until countries know what sort of pledges they are required to make, they are unable to come forward to the UN with new actions to tackle climate change.
US negotiators warned that having to make new promises on climate adaptation could delay their submission.
Meanwhile China, India, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, say that rich countries should pledge new money and adaptation actions in addition to further greenhouse gas reductions.
The latest text by the co-chairs reflects this disagreement, but Halldor Thorgeirsson, director of strategy at the UN’s climate body, told RTCC that the question was now “basically settled”.
He said that there had been good progress on the issue at the recent negotiations in Bonn, and it was “very unlikely there will be an explicit requirement” to provide new promises on money, adaptation and technology within national contributions. “It’s open, but not required,” he said.
Part of the challenge is dispelling developing country fears that excluding additional pledges on finance and adaptation is a means for rich countries to wriggle out of such commitments altogether.
Thorgeirsson said that countries eased the process in Bonn “basically by reassuring each other and coming to an understanding that everyone wants adaptation and recognises that [financial] support is part of the future.”
The UN is currently preparing a website, he said, which will allow countries to submit their contributions electronically.
“The backbone of the consideration next year is basically making it really clearly available on the web and allowing for questions and answers,” said Thorgeirsson.
“We don’t know until Lima exactly what parties want, so it’s going to be a race against time, but we’ve done it before.”
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