We are now finally starting to see real numbers in the discussion of carbon emissions reduction targets from large non-EU countries in the lead up to Copenhagen. The US has now publicly announced their proposed targets, after months of downplaying expectations, and shortly after President Obama agreed to attend the opening of the conference. China had been long been unwilling to discuss numbers until after the US did, and they quickly responded to the US announcement with their own specific targets.
In one sense, this is a sort of progress. At least we are now dealing with real numbers that can be negotiated. Also, unlike pronouncements about "significant" reductions and "strong" targets, the official positions can now be objectively analyzed. Unfortunately, this analysis shows that many of these targets are far below the levels scientists say are needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
The EU has for some time pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, with the potential to increase this to 30 percent if other large emitters (especially the US) also agree to strong targets. The 1990 level is the standard baseline that has been used in negotiations, and it goes back to the Kyoto agreement. It provides a common measuring stick for all nations.
The US has now publicly proposed a reduction of 17 percent, but only from 2005 levels, by 2020. Apparently they are unwilling to use the same 1990 baseline as the rest of the world because it would make clear how weak this target is. This is because if you convert the numbers, this would represent only a 4 percent reduction from 1990 levels. The US is the world's largest emitter, and is historically responsible for a vast amount of the emissions already in the atmosphere, yet they are proposing one of the weakest targets.
China has responded to this by announcing a cut of 40 to 45 percent of emissions per unit of GDP, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020. Developing countries, of course, are generally growing the fastest in carbon emissions, and the goal being sought from these countries is the fastest possible reduction in the rate of the growth, with an eye towards reaching a peak as soon as possible. China has not yet committed to a date when their emissions will peak. They have often hinted that they may be willing to commit to stronger targets, but this is largely dependent on how far the US is willing to go.
China has also called on western countries to cut emissions by 40 percent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020. This is a much stronger target that many scientists, as well as other third countries, have called for. The African Union has been insisting on this same target for some time, and has threatened to walk out from talks if their demands are not met. They have already declared that the 20-30 percent cuts proposed by the EU are unacceptable, so their response to the US announcement is likely to be sharply critical.
Unfortunately, many countries are working on data from the 2007 IPCC report, which is already outdated. Recent data shows that many effects from climate change are accelerating faster than predicted, meaning that we have less time to act. They are working on a new report, but most negotiators are still working from the old data.
A recent German report says that much stronger targets are needed. The IPCC had previously called for a 25-40 precent reduction (from 1990) by all Western countries by 2020, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. The new data says the US must reduce emissions by 100 percent by 2020 (i.e., zero carbon) and other industrial nations (EU, Australia, Canada) must do so by 2025-2030. China would have until 2035.
There is, of course, zero possibility that any agreement at Copenhagen would ever commit to these levels of emissions reduction. But Copenhagen is only a starting point. If an agreement is reached there, we will then need to move quickly over the next few years to continually improve the official targets. Because of how far there is to go, however, it is extremely important that we get as strong an agreement as possible at Copenhagen. At the very least we need to get something close to the original IPCC recommendations. It will not be enough, but it will at least put monitoring and enforcement regimes into place, and establish a framework for further negotiations where these targets can be improved.
This may indeed be our last chance to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. If we cannot reach an agreement with at least moderately strong targets, we risk extensive environmental damage and loss of life. In many ways a weak agreement at Copenhagen could even be worse than no agreement, as it would lock countries into targets too small to make a significant difference. This is the time when we need to put as much pressure as possible on our leaders to ensure this doesn't happen.