[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: This is a long read, but a good one. After the first installment of Ted Parson’s three-part series introduced climate overshoot as a concept and offered a quick history of the Climate Overshoot Commission, these two follow-up parts explain just what is so interesting – and potentially so radical– in the Commission’s recently released report. As someone who studied the Montreal Protocol (briefly), I always wondered what was so different about the rules, systems, and concepts our global society deployed to reduce ozone-destroying CFCs (et al.) and the rules, systems, and concepts we are using now in our fight against the fossil fuels–induced climate crisis. “Money! Dump-trucks of money!” is of course the most obvious answer to any and all questions, but there’s more potential overlap for success that awaits you in this fascinating two-part finish to Parson’s analysis. I have emphasized key lines through this post to assist fellow skimmers, and marked when I have done so, but I hope many of you read the whole thing.]
Pt. 2, A Radical Proposal Hidden in Plain Sight in the Overshoot Commission Report
The Commission’s recommendations on emissions include a fossil phaseout much stronger than anything now proposed, which could materially advance climate action.
Continuing my discussion of the report of the Climate Overshoot Commission released last week, today I dig into their recommendations on mitigation. As you may recall, the Commission’s informal (but serious) job description was to speak of elephants in the room and unclothed emperors: to say things that are true and important about climate risks and responses that other, more political constrained bodies cannot. If you take this job description for statements and apply it to recommendations, it would suggest recommending things that are not politically feasible – at least not now – or that even lie outside the range of current debate. This does not mean making recommendations so outlandish or implausible that they can readily be ignored or arbitrarily rejected, of course. But if the job is to move the range of acceptable arguments and proposals – moving the Overton window, as the political scientists say – the most effective recommendations may well lie beyond the boundary of what could be adopted now. This perspective is especially relevant to the Commission’s recommendations on mitigation.
Mitigation – deep rapid cuts to worldwide emissions – is the first, essential element of effective climate response. I don’t think there’s anyone thinking seriously about climate change who disagrees with this. In the Commission’s words, mitigation is the “foundational strategy.” Yet when the Commission began its work, it first planned not to speak about mitigation – not because they didn’t recognize its primary importance, but because they thought there wasn’t much for them to add to what’s already being said, particularly given the tight time limit on their work. But partway through, the Commissioners realized that not speaking on mitigation would risk them being mistakenly seen to not accord it the needed priority, so they changed course – correctly, even necessarily, in my view. But in making this decision, they also resolved that their messages on mitigation had to cut through the noise and move the debate, and thus sought to make their recommendations radical. I think they succeeded at this, although it’s not clear from the initial reactions to their report that their radicalism has been noticed – yet.
Their mitigation recommendations include calls to adopt stronger national and international accountability mechanisms for emissions cuts; policy and financing innovations to promote faster deployment of zero-emissions technologies; and for countries to recognize each other’s climate policies and reflect them in trade measures. They also call for cutting short-lived climate forcers even faster than now being pursued. These are strong recommendations, persuasive and well conceived. But they also could plausibly be adopted within a few years if governments are serious about ramping up their ambition, so do not necessarily meet the aim of proposing something radical enough to move the debate.
So, where’s the radicalism?
It’s in their very first mitigation recommendation, for a “graduated, differentiated phaseout” in production and consumption of fossil fuels. Wait a second, you might say, what’s so radical about that? Isn’t it obvious that the world needs to get rid of fossil fuels, and haven’t a bunch of people called for it? Well, yes. But the Commission’s proposal is vastly stronger than either the weak language adopted at Glasgow – which calls on parties to “… accelerat(e) efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies …” or the language now being discussed for the coming COP28, which speaks of phasing out unabated fossil fuels. The word “unabated” has been used frequently in recent months by Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates who is overseeing this year’s COP; it was included in a draft document by EU countries; and it appears in the mitigation findings of the global stocktake released earlier this month. The Commission’s proposal is also substantially stronger, and at the same time more practical, than the most ambitious fossil-fuel proposals being promoted by activist nations: the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.
What makes the Commission’s proposal so radical is the combination of its ambition; its inclusion of key design elements that make it plausibly operationalizable; and the stature of the Commission. No mitigation proposal remotely this strong has been advanced in policy debate, certainly not by any body with stature similar to the Commission’s.
It is these elements taken together that make the Commission’s proposal radical.
[Note from BenIndy: This first installment of an analysis of The Climate Overshoot Commission’s report is a bit weedy but worth your time. The report itself kicks off by stating that the likelihood of global warming exceeding the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5°C is “alarmingly high and continues to rise” before charging policymakers to reduce emissions, such as by an “ambitious and orderly phasing out of fossil fuels […] . ” Here, Dr. Parson of UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment offers a brief history of the commission and what the high risk of exceeding the Paris Agreement’s goal – and “climate overshoot” – may mean for climate response.]
A dozen global leaders weigh in on the risk of exceeding the Paris temperature targets and what it means for climate response.
The Climate Overshoot Commission is a senior independent international body, consisting of twelve distinguished individuals from around the world, including former heads of government, national ministers, and leaders of major environment, development, and civil society organizations. Chaired by Pascal Lamy, former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, it was convened by the Paris Peace Forum. The UCLA Emmett Institute contributed to the establishment and work of the Commission in several ways. Two former Emmett Institute law fellows served on the Secretariat. UCLA law students provided research and analytic support to the Secretariat in the International Climate Law and Policy Clinic. I served as a senior advisor to the Secretariat. In this and a few subsequent posts, I’ll present highlights of the Commission’s contributions, with some commentary — my own views, of course, not those of the Commission, which has very cogently spoken for itself.
There have been dozens of international commissions. Some of you may recall the 1986 World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission, which first popularized the idea of “sustainable development.” Commissions generally aim to advance international debate on hard issues, typically when other bodies are constrained in their ability to do so. Commissioners bring experience, stature, broad global representation—but crucially, are not presently in political office, so they are not required to advance national positions. They can speak and discuss freely. Like its predecessors, the job of the Overshoot Commission was to say things that are true and important, but that other more politically constrained bodies are unable to say: to talk loudly about elephants in the room and naked emperors.
This boiled down to two jobs. The first was to sound the alarm about the imminent likelihood of global heating exceeding the Paris temperature targets. The second was to say what this high risk of exceeding the targets— “overshoot”— means for climate response.
For the first, the Commission did its job pretty well, albeit with some reservations. Its forceful opening message is that the likelihood of global-average heating exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—the more ambitious of the Paris targets—is “alarmingly high and continues to rise.” This is a stronger statement of this risk than has been made by any similarly high-level climate body, although not nearly as strong as is justified. Exceeding 1.5°C is virtually certain: indeed, it’s quite likely to happen within the next decade. More seriously, the Commission was silent on the risk of exceeding the higher Paris target, 2.0°C—with much more severe impacts than 1.5°C— which is also high and mounting. The Commission did report recent assessments from three bodies—the IPCC, UNEP, and IEA —which have synthesized projections of end-of-century heating. These are pretty alarming. Just maintaining present emissions-cutting actions—i.e., no further strengthening, but also no backsliding—give end-of-century heating of 3.2°C (IPCC), 2.6°C (UNEP), and 2.5°C (IEA); adding commitments in NDCs on top of current actions gets these down to 2.8°C (IPCC) or 2.4°C (UNEP); and adding conditional commitments and long-term net-zero targets reduces these to 1.7°C (UNEP and IEA). Getting better, but not very comforting.
Deciding how to speak effectively about such projections is surprisingly hard, for a couple of reasons. First, such statements aren’t just scientific but are also political—intended to report what is known or knowable about a risk, in such a way as to elicit a certain kind of response. All public-facing bodies like the Commission fret over how to sound the alarm that bad things are coming, to convey an appropriate level of action-motivating alarm without inducing despair and passivity. Second, there is real uncertainty in such statements, which gets larger and is more dependent on human choice the further ahead you look. While exceeding 1.5°C is pretty much locked in, there is so much range for human action in longer-term projections like 2.0°C, that most bodies —like the three the Commission quoted—speak not in terms of likelihood, but in terms of if-then, conditional statements. If control measures are this strong, then we project this degree of heating. The Commission chose to focus on the 1.5°C target, to speak very forcefully about the likelihood of exceeding it, but not to suggest certainty or unavoidability.
To give the Commission credit where due—and it is due in many places—on one point closely related to these projections, they were uncommonly and admirably frank: Noting the risks and the stark tradeoffs posed by aerosol pollution in the lower atmosphere. This pollution, mostly from burning fossil fuels that contain sulfur, has severe current environmental and health effects, estimated to kill more than 5 million people per year due to respiratory illness. It is also exerting an inadvertent cooling effect that masks a large fraction—perhaps a third to a half—of the climate forcing from previously emitted greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere. This pollution has to be cleaned up—and is being cleaned up—notably via the recently enacted tightening of restrictions on the sulfur content of marine bunker fuels adopted by the IMO. But cleaning this up will remove its cooling effect, which the IPCC recently estimated as 0.7°C.
Another related contribution the Commission made to climate clarity and realism (although less than it perhaps might have) concerns the use of the term for which it was named, “Climate Overshoot.”
Overshoot scenarios initially appeared in integrated assessment models (IAMs). They are projections in which some measure of environmental disruption initially exceeds a target, e.g., one of the Paris global temperature targets, but then stops growing, reverses, and eventually returns to the target level after this temporary period of exceedance. Calling these “overshoot scenarios” makes sense in describing model results, but is somewhat misleading in the real world, because it implies that once you exceed a target you are on an overshoot trajectory, which will in due course reverse and return to the target. In other words, the term suggests that such reversal and return is somehow automatic or easy, perhaps even built into the definition of “overshoot.” But what is actually highly likely is not the complete overshoot trajectory, but the initial exceedance of the target. How large and long-lasting the exceedance is, indeed, whether temperature actually returns to the target at all rather than just staying higher, depends on what happens to net emissions afterwards. Returning to or below the target, let alone doing so after just a small and brief exceedance, will take the same extreme reductions in emissions that have been so challenging to achieve thus far, now with the additional requirement that any continuing emissions be more than offset by extreme scale-up of stable atmospheric removals. Current and coming advances in carbon-free technology will help, of course. But given decades of shortfall in reducing global emissions, and continuing structural factors hindering needed sharp reductions, there is no justification to assume this vast transformation will somehow get easy, let alone automatic, by the mere fact of exceeding the targets and suffering the resultant worse climate impacts. Fossil interests will keep fighting, even if it’s to stretch their demise out longer rather than to live forever. Perhaps increasingly severe climate change and impacts will make transformative socio-technical change easier, but this depends on political assumptions – theories of social change – that are not clear.
An illustration of the deep difficulty thinking coherently about exceedance and overshoot can be found right in the recent IPCC AR6 report—a point the Commission discovered in the course of its work but did not include in its report. The overshoot scenarios reported in the IPCC all fall into two buckets: “low overshoot,” in which 1.5°C is exceeded by at most 0.1°C (this bucket also includes a tiny number of scenarios with no overshoot at all, but to be a little glib, nobody believes those); and “medium to high” overshoot, in which 1.5°C exceeded by 0.1 to 0.3°C. A casual read could be forgiven for inferring that these numbers reflect a reasoned conclusion by the IPCC that these are the biggest overshoots the world will likely have to deal with. But unfortunately that’s not what it means at all. These buckets with their low overshoot numbers are a definitional artifact, arising from the year-2100 endpoint of the analyses. For a scenario to be called “overshoot,” it had to get back to its target by the year-2100 end of the analytic time horizon. Scenarios that peaked above 1.8°C—i.e., that exceeded 1.5°C by more than 0.3°C this century– did not have time to get back below 1.5°C by the end of the century, so were not labeled or analyzed as overshoot. Even more so, no scenario that exceeded 2.0°C could be called overshoot, because there is not enough time on any trajectory to exceed 2.0°C, reverse, and return to 2.0°C by the end of the century. So, the overshoot scenarios identified and analyzed as such are in fact the best possible trajectories in which 1.5°C is exceeded, which manage to get back to 1.5°C by 2100. The IPCC in no way ruled out or judged unlikely future trajectories with higher and longer-lasting exceedances. These are there—in fact, they are clustered into buckets by their end-of-century heating. These include, for example, the scenarios I reported above, in which continuance of present policies or NDC commitments without increasing ambition (granted, a scenario that may be unlikely on the pessimistic, no-action side) give end-of-century heating of 3.2°C and 2.8°C, respectively (with the lower figures subsequently estimated by UNEP and the IEA, as noted above).
Having sounded the alarm about the likelihood of overshoot—albeit pulling their punches a little in concession to the perceived need to give a positive message—the Commission’s second job was to say what this high risk of overshoot means for climate response.
At first cut, this is a simple story: do more of everything and do it faster. But given the widespread desire not to face the stark likelihood of potentially severe exceedance, there actually is more to say—in particular, that the gravity of risks requires consideration of more extreme or radical approaches to limiting climate change than have gained serious attention thus far. It is no longer acceptable to deem plausible solutions that might help inadmissible a priori.
The Commission did this and did it pretty well—to varying degrees across the four major response types, of which they addressed all – mitigation, adaptation, removals, and solar geoengineering or SRM. Indeed, given the current state of climate debate, merely including all four response types with similar levels of scrutiny and detail represents a significant contribution. They also presented a useful and original conceptual framework for thinking about climate responses in presence of overshoot, dividing the four response types into two pairs according to which of two large-scale aims they pursue: Reducing the magnitude and duration of overshoot; and reducing the harms that follow from any given magnitude and duration of overshoot. The two responses that limit the magnitude and duration of overshoot are mitigation and removal: deep cuts in present and future emissions; and removing past emissions from the atmosphere and putting them somewhere long-term secure. The two ways to limit the harms resultant from any specific magnitude and duration of overshoot are adaptation and solar geoengineering (Sort-of, on the last one: the Commission doesn’t recommend solar geoengineering—in fact, its immediate recommendation is to enact a moratorium on it—but it also recommends researching it and starting to talk about how to resolve the governance problems it would raise). They also separately addressed climate finance; a cross-cutting response relevant to all responses.
I’m going to address how the Commission dealt with each response type in subsequent posts, which I’ll put up at intervals of one or two days. The next two will separately consider the two response types where the Commission’s recommendations are most radical, most original, and most likely to attract controversy: mitigation and solar geoengineering. I’ll then review their analysis and recommendations on adaptation, removals, and climate finance, and close with a review of reactions to the Commission (which should start to be clear by that point) and speculation on its impact.
[Note from BenIndy: All bolded elements above represent added emphasis by BenIndy. You can subscribe to Legal-Planet.org in order to receive notifications for Dr. Parson’s follow-up posts.]
Repost from The Guardian [Editor: An important discussion of “survival emissions” in developing nations vs. “lifestyle emissions” in industrial nations. – RS]
Paris climate talks: Developed countries must do more than reduce emissions
By Shyam Saran, 23 November 2015 05.35 EST – Saran is a former foreign secretary of India. He was India’s chief negotiator on climate change from 2007 to 2010
We are only days away from the climate change summit in Paris. Several world leaders are likely to be present to applaud a successful outcome, which is virtually guaranteed since the bar has been set so low in terms of effort expected from the major industrialized economies.
It is this pledge and review system which will become the template for future climate change action. Past experience shows that such weak international regimes, which posit only a best endeavour commitment, rarely deliver expected results.
The UN recently reported that aggregating all the INDCs so far, the world would be on an a trajectory of 2.7C, when a 2C rise is already the limit of safety defined by scientists.
What many people fail to realize is that global warming is the consequence of the stock of greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly CO2, which has accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel based industrial activity in the industrialized countries of the world.
This is the reason why the UN recognizes the historical responsibility of the developed countries in causing global warming even though current industrial activity in major developing countries such as China and, to a much lesser extent, India is adding incrementally to that stock.
If developed countries do not make significant and absolute reductions in their emissions there will be a progressively smaller carbon space available to accommodate the development needs of developing countries. There is a difference between the emissions of developing countries which are “survival” emissions and those of developed countries which are in the nature of “lifestyle” emissions. They do not belong to the same category and cannot be treated on a par.
To blur this distinction is to accept the argument that because “we got here first, so we get to keep what we have, while those who come later must stay where they are for the sake of the saving the planet from the threat of climate change.” Far from accepting their historical responsibility developed countries are instead trying to shift the burden on to the shoulders of developing countries.
This they have been doing by keeping attention focused on current emissions while ignoring the source of the stock of emissions in the atmosphere. A sustainable and effective climate change regime cannot be built on the basis of such inequity.
One often hears the argument that it is all very well to preach equity but given the planetary emergency the world faces from the threat of climate change we must set aside the equity principle in the interests of humanity as a whole. This is a wholly specious and self serving argument. It reflects the sense of entitlement to an affluent lifestyle, based on energy intensive production and consumption, while denying the even modest aspirations of people in developing countries.
In a densely interconnected and globalised world, it will be impossible to maintain islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty and deprivation. It is not that developing countries are claiming the right to spew as much carbon as possible into the atmosphere without regard to the health of the planet.
As the main victims of climate change– the impacts of which they are already suffering – they have a much bigger stake in dealing with this challenge. They are, in fact, doing much more than most developed countries, to adopt energy frugal methods of growth, conserving energy, promoting renewable power and limiting waste within the limits of their own resources.
They could do much more if they had access to finance, technology and capacity building from developed countries, a commitment which is incorporated in the UN. Success may elude Paris if developed countries continue to evade their responsibility to provide adequate financial resources and transfer appropriate technologies to developing countries to enable them to enhance their own domestic efforts.
Climate negotiations have become less about meeting an elemental challenge to human survival and more about safeguarding narrowly conceived economic self interests of nations. These are negotiations conducted in a competitive frame, where each party gives as little as possible and extracts as much as possible. The inevitable result is a least common denominator result and this is what is expected at Paris.
Imagine if each country came with the intention to contribute as much as it can and take away as little benefit to itself as possible, because we are all faced with an urgent and global challenge. We would then get a maximal outcome – which is what the world requires if it has to escape the catastrophic consequences of climate change. The negotiating dynamic may change dramatically.
The leaders can capture the imagination of people around the world if they explicitly acknowledge the seriousness of the threat we all confront and commit themselves to a global collaborative effort to deal with it based on the principle of equitable burden sharing.
Why not create a global technology platform which brings together the best minds from developed and developing countries alike to create new climate-friendly technologies which can then be disseminated as global public goods? Given the promise of solar power, why not announce a global solar mission designed to make it a mainstream energy source in a decade? Since coal will continue to be a major source of power generation in many countries of the world, could we collaborate together on a clean coal mission which reduces harmful emissions and increases the efficiency of coal combustion?
Countries can then contribute according to their capacities and resource availability and I have no doubt that emerging countries such as India, China or Brazil will be enthusiastic participants in such initiatives. Even if we are unable at this stage to go beyond the INDCs which have already been submitted the adoption of these initiatives may reassure the world that a new and more promising process has been set in motion to deliver a more sustainable future for our common home.
Repost from CSMonitor.com [Editor: This is a good overview. Check out the briefing which begins, “Negotiators from 195 countries are set to meet in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget for two weeks, beginning Nov. 30, to wrap up a new, historic pact to limit global warming. A heavy handed, top-down approach hasn’t worked. Now, countries are pinning their hopes on an amped-up, ‘Stone Soup’ approach. What makes this agreement historic? …” – RS]
Basic background on the upcoming Paris Climate Talks
By Monitor Energy Editor David Unger, November 20, 2015
In December, diplomats from nearly 200 countries meet in Paris to finalize an international climate agreement. The aim is to limit greenhouse-gas emissions – and the warming those emissions cause – to within a safe range. Decades of global talks have struggled to produce meaningful, unified climate action, but there are reasons to believe this time will be different. Ultimately, what happens in and after Paris – a city still reeling from a violent terrorist act – will shape life on Earth in the 21st century.
If you’re new to the topic, start with our Paris background briefing, and explore our map of national climate pledges. From there you can read the Monitor’s best pre-Paris energy and climate stories and check out recaps of our Path-to-Paris events. For the latest updates, news, and observations, keep tabs on our Paris notebook.
You can also sign up below to get e-mail updates from Monitor energy editor David Unger, who will be in Paris covering the talks.