New modeling released by the United Nations today paints a very disturbing picture – the emission cuts pledges made by the 60 countries who signed the Copenhagen Accord will not be enough to keep the average global temperature rise low enough to avoid devastating climate change. The simple explanation is in order to stay in the safe zone, scientists say temperatures need to be limited to a rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times. Unfortunately, the new study shows that even if every country that promised to cut their greenhouse emissions does so at the levels agreed to (and who knows if that will even happen?), the total amount of emissions produced would still be gigatonnes over what scientists view as tolerable.
To break it down even further, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that annual greenhouse gas emissions should not be more than between 40 and 48.3 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent in 2020 and should peak between 2015 and 2021. The report, which was based on modeling by nine research centres, also said that if we stay inside that range and slash global emissions by between 48 and 72 percent between 2020 and 2050, Earth will have a or 50-50 chance of staying within the 2 degree limit.
However, the report went on to say that based on the vows made in the Copenhagen Accord, “the expected emissions for 2020 range between 48.8 to 51.2 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent, based on whether high or low pledges will be fulfilled.” If you compare the numbers, it’s easy to see that the promised cuts will still result in emissions that are 0.5 and 8.8 gigatonnes over what scientists see as the cap.
So what’s the takeaway here? Are we doomed? Achim Steiner, UNEP‘s executive director says that we should take the study as a wake up call and reason to make even more extensive cuts. “The message is not to sit back and resign and say we will never make it,” Steiner told reporters in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian island of Bali, at a major U.N. environment meeting. “But it’s not enough at the moment and there are other options that can be mobilised.”
What are these options? Steiner explained that one alternative is to invest in a scheme called reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), which pays poor countries to preserve and enhance their forests. While we may not be able to get more countries to agree to reduced emissions, we can counteract the emissions by saving forests which soak up large amounts of planet-warming CO2. The point is that in light of this disheartening evidence, we can’t wait around for countries to make more cuts. Other options need to be explored in order (and possibly even made lucrative for private investors) in order for us to reach a level where we can feel comfortable about the Earth’s future.