“You didn’t get us onto 2 degrees?”
I will chop the head off the person who asks that question.” —Christiana Figueres
UN climate chief Figueres is not afraid of the question “Why didn’t you get us to 2°C by 2030,” as she pretends. The question she fears is “Why are we going to spend the next 15 years making it much harder to get to 2°C?” That’s what UN scientists say the INDCs will do—make it harder to limit warming to 2°C. The problem is that she and the other negotiators do not understand the science of cooperation, so they just can’t see how to do better.
So here’s what UN scientists showed us in their report (Figure 2). (I’ve added the red and yellow lines where they’ve drawn wiggly white dashed lines.) The yellow line shows what we would have to do if we started heading for 2°C today.* This is not the fastest way, it’s the cheapest way. Any other way is more expensive. With the INDCs, the cheapest way to get to 2°C is the red line. That’s far above the yellow line (cheapest way, starting now) and thus much more expensive than starting now.
Taking the yellow line we have to go from 50 Gt emissions down to 26 Gt in 35 years.
Taking the red line—the best we can do with the INDCs—we have to go from 52 Gt down to 24 Gt in just 20 years. And this is assuming all the INDCs work perfectly, e.g., India gets the $2.5 trillion it has demanded to satisfy its conditional commitment, and the Republicans don’t get in the way of the US commitment.
So, even the very best INDC outcome will force us to go twice as fast later compared to taking the cheapest path now. If pledge-and-review can’t work now, how can it solve the much tougher problem in 2030? Well, it won’t. In fact, even the best cooperation probably can’t do the job if we make things worse now. After 15 more years of new coal plants in developing countries, it will be way too hard. Below the graph, find out how to get started now.
The science of cooperation says an effective agreement must be based on reciprocity—I will if you will. That requires a common commitment, and the world (e.g., the World Bank, the IMF, Joseph Stiglitz and Martin Weitzman, dozens of corporations, etc.) has finally been converging on exactly the right common commitment—a global carbon price.
There’s been so much talk about this that Figueres has had to publicly nix the idea. The Guardian headline, Oct 27, 2015, shouts: Paris climate deal will not include global carbon price, says UN climate chief. It’s too late to set such a price in Paris, but a simple step could send a powerful economic signal. So here’s a possibility:
- All countries should commit to annually reporting their average carbon price (net of subsidies) for oil, coal and gas.
- All countries should name the global carbon price they would be happy to apply to themselves in 2025 — if 80% of world carbon emissions were covered by that price.
- Each country should name this price by 2017, but can change it any time they like.
This is both a valuable learning exercise and a powerful signal to corporations that a strong carbon price might well be coming. Companies that make long-term investments do look ahead (40 years for coal plants) and they don’t like to take big risks.
Step #2 shows how reciprocity could work to get more cooperation. Because countries know they would not have to implement a global price unless almost everyone else did, they don’t have to be afraid that others will free-ride on their commitment. This is the key to reciprocity and real cooperation. Learn more about this here.
* Footnote on “heading for 2C today: Actually what scientists mean when they say that is “heading for a 66% change of limiting the temperature increase to 2C, assuming the current estimate of the Climate Sensitivity Parameter is correct.” Of course that parameter will turn out to be either high or low. But given current information it’s still reasonable to think 66% is our best guess.