Climate Change Report

After days of ongoing (social) media coverage on a major new climate policy study, it’s always interesting to see what you can find if you actually read the whole report. In this respect, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) special report Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map makes no difference.

Released on 10 June 2013, the IEA report simply asks what kind of policies might be needed in the short-to-medium-term to keep the international climate policy on track to meet their global stabilization objective. The IEA presents a 4-for-2°C Scenario, consisting of “four policy measures that can help keep the door open to the 2°C target through to 2020”.

These policies are:

  • Adopting specific energy efficiency measures
  • Limiting the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants
  • Minimising methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production
  • Accelerating the (partial) phase-out of subsidies to fossil-fuel consumption

The implementation of these measures could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 3 Gt CO2 in 2020, buying precious time for UN negotiations on a global climate treaty, which should come into effect in 2020, demanding even steeper emissions reductions throughout the 21st century.

Fueled by the IEA’s own press release, many journalists and bloggers have focused on the good news: Reaching the 2°C target is still possible or, in the words of the IEA: “technically feasible”. As we know, such an assessment relies heavily on core modeling assumptions.

Therefore, the much more interesting question is if the central objective of international climate policy is also politically feasible. While the world is heading for a temperature increase between 3.6 and 5.3°C, are national governments really willing and able to deliver the emissions reductions consistent with a global 2°C carbon budget?

If you read the report carefully, you’ll find several indications that the IEA (an autonomous body within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD) considers this doubtful.

The IEA does not expect that the ongoing UN climate negotiations will lead to a comprehensive, ambitious and legally binding treaty that will be derived from a quantified global climate stabilization target. Unlike other carbon budget studies which assume a top-down governance architecture, the IEA report postulates that the new agreement:

“is unlikely to resemble the highly-centralised set of commitments that characterize the Kyoto Protocol, in order to allow for flexibility to take account of national circumstances. It is expected to bring together existing pledges into a co-ordinated framework that builds mutual trust and confidence in the total emissions abatement that they represent.” (p. 20)

This is a rather realistic assessment of what might be achievable in the context of UN negotiations by 2015, pointing to a more fundamental misconception of international climate policy that has dominated the climate discourse since 1992.

The problem-centered modes of extensive environmental governance associated with a global emissions budget approach are ultimately unfeasible politically. Its key weakness is the lack of consideration of crucial political factors, in particular the ways multilateral organizations, national governments, and political parties actually work.

Not even the EU, which describes its climate policy explicitly as “science-based,” would actually be prepared to submit to the logic of a (regional) emissions budget. In the upcoming process of setting and implementing internal climate targets that are legally binding for the post-2020 period, the EU will not only want to remain flexible enough to accommodate international political conditions, the domestic political climate in its Member States, and the interests of key economic actors; it will also have to refrain from using stringent budgeting mechanisms to put emissions reductions at the top of the political agenda for the next four decades.

Basing climate policy on carbon budgets is inconceivable for the very reason that major new findings in climate science, such as changes in estimates of the long-term temperature increase resulting from a doubling of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (equilibrium climate sensitivity), would automatically result in emissions budget adjustments over which policy makers would have absolutely no influence.

So can we expect that governments are willing to deliver the necessary emissions cuts to get the world on a 2°C trajectory? I doubt it and so does the IEA – but not until its report’s very last paragraph. There, the IEA raises the obvious question, namely “if the international community is serious about acting to limit the rise in global temperature to 2°C”.

For the IEA, a body within the OECD, controlled by 34 national governments, it’s almost impossible to give a clear answer. Raising the question is all the IEA can do. In the near future, the climate policy community should do a better job answering it.

Emphasizing technical feasibility while ignoring political infeasibility might be a good recipe for environmental campaigners playing the political blame game (“it only lacks political will”), but it doesn’t lead to ambitious climate policies.

Photo Credit: Climate Change Report/shutterstock