Who's afraid of 2°C?

The latest fuss about the 2°C global temperature target India apparently acceded to at the Major Economies Forum in L’Aquil, Italy, is important to unravel.

The declaration by the world’s 20 biggest and most powerful countries recognized the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels should not exceed 2°C. The statement was widely criticized in India as a sign we had ‘given in’ to pressure to take commitments, to cap our emissions. But it was not quite clear why something as obtuse as 2°C equalled a target, so confusion followed. It seemed we were against capping temperature increase at 2°C; we wanted emissions to grow; that temperature increase was bad for us and for the world. The Western media tom-tommed it as another proof India was the renegade in climate negotiations.

Let’s sort this issue. It is widely accepted keeping global temperature rise below 2°C, measured from pre-industrial levels (1850), is the threshold that will leash climate change from being ‘dangerous’ to becoming ‘catastrophic’. To put this number into context, consider current average global temperature increase is 0.8°C; add on the fact that another 0.8°C is inevitable, because of the amount of greenhouse gases (ghgs) already pumped into the atmosphere. So, we are already close to the threshold. Now, let’s understand the politics. Once the world accepts the need to cap temperature, it also accepts the need to cap emissions. The 2°C target is possible only if the world limits ghg concentration at 450 ppm CO2-e, taking together the stock and current emissions. It gets complicated here.

Think of the atmosphere as a cup of water, filled to the brim. More water can only be filled if the cup is emptied to create space. But since there are many claimants on the water that needs to be filled in the cup, the space will have to be apportioned—budgeted—so that the earlier occupiers vacate and the new claimants fill in, in some proportion of equity. In other words, the emission budget of 450 ppm CO2-e has to be apportioned, based on equity, between nations. The problem with the L’Aquila declaration is not that it caps the increase in temperature, but that it does not make explicit this limit will require sharing the budget equally between nations who have already used up their common atmospheric space and new entrants to economic growth. Without budget-sharing the temperature cap becomes a virtual cap on the emissions of the developing world, for we are told we will also have to peak in the midterm and take meaningful deviations from our carbon-growth trajectory.

Let us be clear: the space is very limited. We know concentration of all ghg emissions is already close to 430 ppm. But with some ‘cooling’ allowance, because of aerosols, it comes to 390-400 ppm. In sum, not much space remains to be distributed and shared in our intensely unequal world. But this is not all that confounds the science. The fact is greenhouse gases have a very long life in the atmosphere. Gases released, say, since the late 1800s when the Western world was beginning to industrialize, are still up there. This is the natural debt that needs to be repaid, like the financial debt of nations.

It was for this reason the Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997, set emission limits on industrialized countries—they had to reduce so that the developing world could increase. It is a matter of record the emissions of these countries continued to rise. As a result, today there is even less atmospheric space for the developing world to occupy. It is also evident the industrial world did nothing; it knew it needed to fill the space as quickly as possible. Now we have just crumbs to fight over.

It is also no surprise, then, that Western academics are now calling upon the developing world to take on emission reduction targets: there is no space left for them to grow. The logic is simple, though twisted and ingenious. No space left to grow. Ergo, “you cannot ask for the right to pollute,” they tell the developing world. This is unacceptable. We know emissions of carbon dioxide are linked to economic growth, therefore, capping emissions without equal apportionment will mean freezing inequity in this world.

Unacceptable. We know also that this apportionment is an intensely political decision, for it will determine the way the world will share both the common space and economic growth. It is only when we agree on the formula for sharing that we can agree on how much the already-industrialized countries have to cut and by when, and how much the rest (India included) have to cut and by when.

Instead, what we have is a pincer movement. The already-industrialized do not want to set interim targets to reduce their emissions drastically. They want to change the base-year from when emission reduction will be counted—2005 or 2007, instead of 1990. This means two things. One, they want to continue to grow (occupy space) in the coming years.

Two, the space they have already occupied—as their emissions vastly increased between 1990 and 2007—should be forgiven. All this when we know meeting the 450 ppm target requires space to be vacated fast—they must peak within the next few years and then reduce drastically by at least 40 per cent by 2020 over 1990 levels. But why do this, when you can muscle your way into space? So how will the world share the carbon budget? The only answer is it will have to be based on equity. We will discuss these issues, even as the climate clock ticks.