Solving the climate jigsaw

On January 1, 2010, in climate debt, climate justice, equity, by Admin

How do we know if the pieces of a climate deal will “fit together” to get the job done?

  • What limit on global warming will keep us safe?  What does this mean for emission reductions globally, and in my country?
  • What are the likely climate impacts on my country? What are the costs? How can we adapt to climate change?
  • How will the burden of mitigating and adapting to climate change be shared? What technologies are available and how will they be transferred? What financing is required in the short, medium and longer-term?

Like a jigsaw, the different pieces of the puzzle (including a global goal to limit warming, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology etc) must fit together to form a coherent picture.

If we understand how the pieces fit together, we can evaluate whether a proposed deal will “get the job done”, whether it is “fair”, and so on.  We can evaluate the deal proposed by different countries, the outcome of the Copenhagen Conference, or the content – proposed or actual – of any future deal.

The starting point is to understand the individual pieces and how they connect. Based on this, we can start to place values on them using the best possible analysis (scientific, economic, etc). The first step is relatively easy; the second step more complex.

If we start with the impacts of climate change – the piece relating to “adaptation” – we can see how the other pieces of the puzzle (e.g. global goal, mitigation, finance, technology etc) connect to form a coherent picture – or don’t.

1. Adaptation relates to increases in temperature in a region and globally. A community will suffer impacts arising from changes to their local climate – their regional average warming – and from the associated effects on water, food production and livelihoods.

2. Regional warming and impacts relate to the level of global average warming. Warming in Africa, for instance, will be higher than the global average as large landmasses warm more than average. Warming in polar-regions and globally will affect low-lying islands and coastal areas through sea level rise.

3. Levels of regional and global average warming depend, in turn, on the level of atmospheric greenhouse concentrations, usually measured as parts per million (PPM). Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere act like a blanket, trapping the sun’s radiation and warming the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and landmasses.

4. Atmospheric concentrations relate to the level of emission reductions undertaken globally. The more we emit, the thicker the blanket of greenhouse gases and greater the rise in temperatures and associated impacts on people and communities. The larger our emission reductions, in turn, the lower the level of temperature increase.

5. Global emission reductions depend on the emission reductions undertaken by developed countries and developing countries (often measured in gigatonnes). The atmosphere doesn’t distinguish between the origins of emissions. So any global limit on emissions effectively defines a goal to be jointly achieved by developed and developing countries, without determining who does what share. If a goal for the developed countries is also set, then logically (by a matter of subtraction) the remainder would fall to developing countries. Adjusting our diagram a bit:

6. Two key pieces of the puzzle – i.e. the scale of adaptation and mitigation actions by developing countries – determine, in turn, the level of financing and technology required by them. Under the UNFCCC, developed countries are supposed to provide developing countries with the “agreed full incremental costs” of implementing their commitments relating to mitigation and adaptation.

This simple set of relations describes the relationship between the main topics under discussion in the climate negotiations. These include:

  • A “shared vision” including a global goal reflecting temperature limits (e.g. 1, 1.5 or 2 degrees C) or atmospheric concentrations (e.g. 300ppm, 350ppm or 450ppm) or global emission reductions (e.g. more than 100%, 85% or 50% by 2050 from 1990 levels);
  • The mitigation commitments by developed countries, whether framed as commitments in the medium term (e.g. 50%, 45% or 30% by 2020) or longer-term (e.g. over 200%, 95% or 80% by 2050);
  • The mitigation actions by developing countries and their requirements for support;
  • The adaptation actions and compensation required by developing countries, in light of the expected level of warming and associated impacts;
  • The nature and level of technology transfer required to address the mitigation and adaptation challenges facing developing countries; and
  • The requirements of finance for developing countries for mitigation, adaptation and technology transfer, whether framed in financial terms (e.g. $100 billion by 2020) or other terms (e.g. 5% Annex I GNP).

For any climate deal to be fair and adequate this “climate puzzle” must fit together. This set of relations provides a basis for examining the proposals of any country or group (e.g. European Union) or of any political process (e.g. the Copenhagen Accord) in terms both of fairness and adequacy.

For a deal to work the limit on temperature increase must be low enough to keep the most vulnerable peoples safe. To achieve this goal our global emission reductions must be sufficiently ambitious. These reductions, in turn, must be fairly shared between countries, rich and poor. And finance and technology must be made available to enable developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, while promoting development.

If the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together, if the elements do not add up, then any such deal is likely to be insufficient on grounds of fairness or adequacy – and likely both. For example, insufficient global emission reductions mean that temperatures will rise beyond dangerous levels, threatening food and water, violent weather and social conflict.

Insufficient emission reductions by developed countries, in turn, mean that the burden and costs of reducing emissions will be unfairly shifted to developing countries, limiting their prospects for economic growth and development.

And insufficient levels of finance and technology transfer mean that developing countries will not be able to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change, or that resources will be denied to other priorities, such as health and poverty eradication.

At the extreme, an insufficient effort poses a risk that the Earth’s climate system will pass tipping points and result in a process of runaway climate change that humans are unable to contain or control, and that shifts the Earth’s climate and ecosystems into states not experienced at any time during the development of human civilization.

The challenge facing us, then, is to assign the right values to the pieces of this puzzle – and to build the political will required to assemble them into a deal that works. This is not an abstract issue. The “climate puzzle” must fit together. The safety and security of literally millions of people hangs in the balance.


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