Yet in Lima on Monday, it happened.
Our little revolutionary moment comes in a document with the memorable title “ADP 2-7 agenda item 3 Elements for a draft negotiating text” with its climate-busting section D (paragraph 13.2) outlining several possible long-term goals for a new climate change agreement.
Here’s a taster from the document, as it was at 6.30am in Lima, on 8 December 2014.
Parties’ efforts to take the form of:
a. A long-term zero emissions sustainable development pathway:
Consistent with emissions peaking for developed countries in 2015, with an aim of zero net emissions by 2050; in the context of equitable access to sustainable development
Consistent with carbon neutrality/net zero emissions by 2050, or full decarbonization by 2050 and/or negative emissions by 2100;….
In this context “Parties” refers to countries which are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Here in Lima, we are at a “Conference of the Parties” or COP.
The document in question is what’s known as a negotiating text, and in this case it contains a whole grab bag of aspirational long-term goals.
Those I’ve picked out are just a few of the more ambitious ones. I understand these were pushed into the document by countries, including Norway, the Marshall Islands, Sweden and a grouping of countries consisting of Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru and Panama.
It is a very early version of what, over the course of the next 12 months, will morph into a new global deal to be signed in Paris.
While a year seems like a long time, it’s not in the world of UN climate talks.
As one Australian observer pointed out, there are only six weeks of negotiating time on the UN’s schedule between now and Paris.
But if language such as “full decarbonization by 2050” were to become a reality, it basically defines an end point for the fossil fuel energy industry as we know it.
During a media briefing, I asked Ruth Davis, of Greenpeace UK, how likely it was that a decarbonisation goal could survive.
I think we have to say to ourselves that the chances of this stuff staying in the text are down to all of our collective efforts in demanding that this stays in the text. This is not only civil society but also progressive businesses who have to make their voices heard in keeping this in the text.
The chances of this stuff surviving are dependent on the efforts that we collectively make to influence politicians to do the right thing.
What is in this “elements” document isn’t likely to be challenged or negotiated this week – that will be thrashed out next year.
As veteran climate negotiations watcher Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained:
This text won’t be settled here. It is an options text that then needs to be translated into a legal text and it won’t be decided until the last night at Paris. So which long-term goal survives the end of the day we won’t know until a year from now.
But there was incredible political momentum coming out of the climate summit in New York where about 60 national leaders endorsed the need for a long-term goal as part of the Paris agreement and that number is continuing to grow. We have more and more businesses, faith groups and unions speaking out – there is a momentum building around this and I think by Paris next year the chances of a strong goal staying in the agreement are probably much greater than they are right now.
In an early evening briefing, climate scientist Dr Malte Meinshausen explained the 2050 decarbonisation date was derived from statements in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
He said that from 2011, the world could afford to emit no more than 1000bn tonnes (Gt) of CO2 to have a good chance of staying below 2C of global warming (some poorer countries and low-lying states say the aim should be 1.5C). Meinshausen said:
At current rates we churn through 33Gt a year – 1000Gt divided by 33 means we have about 30 years left from 2011 onwards. Then the carbon budget will be exhausted.
At some point emissions have to go to zero, no matter what. There is no way around zero CO2 emissions. As long as we continue to emit CO2, the climate will continue to warm.
Not only does the decarbonisation proposal broadly match the kind of efforts climate change scientists say would be needed to avoid dangerous climate change, it also matches the level of ambition climate campaigners have been asking for.
The campaign group AVAAZ has a petition with more than two million signatories that also asks for decarbonisation by 2050.
The campaign director of Avaaz, Iain Keith, told me:
This isn’t a target that’s been dreamt up in Lima. All over the world, millions of people have backed the call for 100% clean energy, with grassroots campaigns rolling out in towns and cities everywhere to get emissions to zero. The world is waking up to the fact that a renewables revolution isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable.
The options on the table for world leaders seem simpler in the context of a long-term goal such as decarbonisation by 2050.
Either the goal survives or the world moves to a riskier and more dangerous future.
Whether or not some countries want to be responsible for facilitating that risk by killing a long-term goal to decarbonise, only time and many more late-night negotiations will tell.
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