August 14, 2012
Empty Targets: Do Copenhagen Emissions Commitments Have Any Integrity?
By Yael Borofsky and Jesse Jenkins; post updated 12/9/09
With Copenhagen climate delegates continuing to wrangle over who will cut how much by when, the way is now paved for another round of "bold commitments" to abstract emissions targets and timetables that lack the integrity of actions required to truly mitigate climate change.
As insidious abstractions, the focus on targets and timetables leaves delegates and world leaders free to give short-shrift to the technology innovation strategies and major clean energy investments required to decarbonize the global energy sector.
A cynic might consider this insistence on abstraction intentional; a way for politicians and world leaders to "come together" to demonstrate their "shared commitment" to "climate action" without actually having to wrestle with the difficult task of transforming the world's energy system.
Here's a brief look at the targets outlined by some of the key international players in the Copenhagen negotiations.
United States: 17% by 2020 of 2005 levels
President Obama announced this target in late November, although the U.S. Congress has not yet passed the pending climate and energy legislation that would codify this commitment. Should the bill become law, Breakthrough's detailed analysis of the House-passed climate bill demonstrates it will do little to actually transform the U.S. energy sector or catalyze clean technology innovation over the next decade or more, and U.S. firms will rely overwhelmingly on offsets for compliance. Worse yet, any bill securing final passage in the U.S. Senate is expected to be further weakened.
China: Reduce carbon intensity (carbon emitted per unit of GDP) by 40-45% by 2020 from 2005 levels; proposed as non-binding in an international framework
As Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. explains, "A 40-45% cut in carbon intensity in China is essentially business-as-usual as projected by the IEA." What constitutes "BAU" in China already includes a relatively rapid 3.7% rate of decarbonization per year and big investments in clean technology, but China isn't pledging to do anything new at Copenhagen. And China (along with India, Brazil and South Africa) has maintained that the developing world should not subject to binding cuts under any international treaty, making their pledge essentially an unenforceable, non-binding "commitment."
India: Reduce carbon intensity 20-25% by 2020 from 2005 levels; non-binding.
Like China, this target is completely voluntary and the target announcement does not change India's staunch aversion to any treaty framework other than a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, which includes binding international commitments only for the world's developed nations. India continues to insist that wealthy Western nations are responsible for climate change (largely a valid point) and thus should be the only ones held to future oversight and restrictions.
European Union: 20% by 2020 below 1990 levels; 30% by 2020 below 1990 levels if other developed nations make similar binding commitments
Most of the emissions reductions achieved by the EU under the Kyoto Protocol have been the result of economic collapse and creative accounting schemes such as emissions trading and unverifiable carbon offsets, not any real transformation of the EU energy system. Going into Copenhagen, there is little evidence to suggest that the EU has a direct plan to meet either of these targets through decarbonization that is decoupled from economic hardship and creative accounting.
Japan: 25% cut below 1990 levels; as long as other countries commit to an ambitious deal in Copenhagen
Analyzing the now-deposed LPD party's climate plans, Roger Pielke, Jr. found that, Japan had no adequate plan to meet its initial goal of 15% reductions from 2005 levels by 2020. The newly elected Democratic Party of Japan's is now calling for a 25% cut with no new progress made to develop a real plan to transform Japan's energy system on this scale, leaving the DPJ's "more ambitious" plan reliant on plenty of offsetting.
Australia: 5% by 2020 below 2000 levels; will commit to 15-25% by 2020 below 2000 levels if an ambitious deal is reached in Copenhagen
Domestically, policymakers have been trying, to no avail, to pass a cap-and-trade carbon trading scheme, similar in design to the EU ETS and the cap-and-trade policy forming the cornerstone of pending U.S. climate and energy legislation. The stalled legislation proposed a 5% cut in emissions by 2020 and given the political difficulty of committing to this target, Australia seems to be without a plan to meet a more ambitious target without relying overwhelmingly on carbon offsets.