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In Cancun, Begin with the Science

Just before COP16 began, the United Nations Environment Program released The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2° C or 1.5° C?

It’s gotten a great deal of attention, and this is a very good thing. Despite the glorious weather here in Cancun, the mood is grim. Tensions are high, so it’s good to have this sort of unambiguous framing – a clear reminder of the science – front and center. It helps everyone remember how high the stakes are.

The UNEP report basically consists of a meta-analysis of the various current studies of emissions pathways and their consequences. It’s focused on the Copenhagen pledges (which are (duh!) judged to be way too weak) and it’s notable for taking proper account of 1.5°C (350 ppm) as well as 2°C targets, and for closely analyzing the loopholes by which the wealthy countries propose to avoid actually having to deliver on their nominal emission-reduction commitments. Moreover, it takes a good, focused look at the need for “negative emissions” in the not too distant future. This idea is not one that “realists” (incrementalists) usually dwell on, but it’s critical nonetheless. The UNEP report seems to mark its coming out into the wider public debate.

But the tone on the report is just a wee bit clinical. And it contains a little soft-pedaling – for example, the range of 2020 emissions targets that is consistent with “likely” chance of holding the warming to 2°C is judged to be 39-44 GtCO2 equivalent; this is not, actually, a range that can fairly be called “approximately 44.” But put this little chunk of fudge aside. The main point is that, after reading the Emissions Gap Report, you’ll know the main thing – if we’re going to avoid a global climate catastrophe, it’s going to be by way of a global emissions pathway that has no historical parallel. The necessary rate of annual, global emissions decline alone makes this crystal clear. The key numbers are here, quietly stated but impressive nonetheless.

The report doesn’t go into the ethical-political failings that have stalled international progress, but this is no real surprise. This is science, after all, and it's meant to be taken straight. The ethical political crisis in the negotiations, though, cannot forever be set aside. Right now it looks like Cancun is going to drum this lesson deep into everyone’s skulls. Inevitably, it will be the focus of another round of increasingly visible analysis. It has to be. One way or another, we’re heading into a new world.

By the way, Climate Interactive has done a nice video summary of the UNEP report. You can find it here.

Tom Athanasiou, Author and director of Earth Island Project EcoEquityTom Athanasiou photo
Tom is the director of EcoEquity and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors group. His interests focus on distributive justice within a context of global environmental emergency. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and reports, including The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, and Divided Planet: the Ecology of Rich and Poor. He is currently developing a new book, the working title of which is A New Deal for the Greenhouse Century.

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