The level of ambition of the “Copenhagen Agreement” is now clear. The current offers on the table would represent a decisive move to a global low carbon economy, but even under the most optimistic scenarios they do not add up to a reliable pathway to limit temperature rise well below 2°C.
Even if the international community does take the extra steps needed to stay below 2°C, the impacts of climate change present a huge adaptation challenge to vulnerable countries. The current proposals for adaptation suggest the Copenhagen Agreement will provide an inadequate response to these unavoidable changes.
Delivering the most ambitious outcome currently available, including substantial support for adaptation, would be an astonishing result given the political and economic backdrop. However, the atmosphere does not care about political achievements, only the impact on net global concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Global emission targets will need to be tightened in the next decade to ensure a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Recent estimates put the lower thresholds for many key tipping points of the climate system in the 3-4 degree range. Irreversible commitment to major sea-level rise due to glacial melting is likely to occur at temperatures above 1.5°C. A concentration target of 450ppm CO2e gives a 40% chance of entering a 3-4°C temperature range in this century. The debate over climate goals will be driven by the increasingly visible impacts of climate change and the next IPCC Scientific Assessment Report in late 2013.
From a “climate realist” perspective Copenhagen must lay an effective foundation for the next stage of global decarbonisation by agreeing a framework which is:
- Sustainable and scalable: an agreement where all countries can see each others’ actions inside a legally-binding and harmonised reporting system. A system robust to the inevitable policy failures which will occur, and where commitments can be “turned up” to reflect the latest climate science.
- Credible to Investors: an agreement that is credible and ambitious enough to form a tipping point in investor and company perceptions on the inevitability of a low carbon economic future, and that results in supportive investor statements after Copenhagen and strong carbon prices.
- Transformational: an agreement that catalyzes the changes in long term investment, innovation systems and institutions in all major emitting countries which are needed to move to a reliable below 2C trajectory from 2015-2020.
A successful Copenhagen will be the “beginning of the end” of dangerous climate change. Copenhagen must keep open the option of a below 2°C future by limiting emissions, laying the foundations of a sustainable climate regime and building economic momentum for fundamental changes. A new adaptation regime must effectively protect the most vulnerable from the worst impacts of climate change by improving country and community resilience.
After Copenhagen the climate change debate must immediately move from the politics of the possible to the politics of necessity. Countries must move to implement transformational low carbon strategies, and targets must be increased by 2015 in the light of the latest climate science.