Climate Deal 2015

Making “Emissions Gaps” and "COPs" Relevant to the Public

The Lima climate talks will start in a few days and while the technical community discusses IPCC findings and the "emissions gap", a large part of our domestic public still ignores the big climate picture. We need to provide better translations of the jargon, provide accessible language in order to encourage broad citizen support for more muscular climate commitments in the road to Paris - and for the benefit of the people. This is the first in a series of articles that seek to connect key ideas of the international policy development with the public debates in our countries. It concentrates on the Emissions Gap Report.

The gap

The latest United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report was published last week, providing an assessment that aims to reach multiple audiences, in particular policy-makers and climate negotiators. The global launch took place in several capitals. I attended the launching in Mexico City where I presented the report along with local experts.

In essence, the Emissions Gap Report assesses whether the climate pledges made by countries are on track to meet the internationally agreed 2°C climate target. The report is produced by a group of 38 scientists from 22 research centers in 14 countries, and builds on the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report. As does the AR5, the Report uses the framing of a worldwide carbon budget. The budget is set at just 1,000 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2, and in order to avoid exceeding this limit the world must reach global carbon neutrality somewhere between 2055 and 2070 – that is, global annual CO2 emissions should become net zero. If other non-CO2 greenhouse gases are taken into account – e.g., methane or nitrous oxide – then all emissions will need to be reduced to zero between 2080 and 2100.

The report’s ‘emissions gap’ therefore exposes the difference between emission levels consistent with meeting country climate targets versus the levels expected if country actions are met. The report’s climate scientists estimate the emissions gap in 2020 at 10 Gt CO2, and 17 Gt CO2 in 2030. Following business-as-usual emission trends, the gap in 2030 could even be bigger, at 26 Gt CO2.

Time for actions of our own

For the past five years, the Emissions Gap Report has been published ahead of the annual UN Conference on Climate Change, which will take place in Lima, Peru on 1-14 December. We know that the international negotiations are complex, and the report is often used as an input for one country’s demands for climate action from others.

The bigger challenge, however, is the public asking for more action from our own governments. Wherever we live in the world, it is a matter of public best interest to avoid the trap of high-carbon growth and its long-term consequences – especially in the developing world.

Unfortunately, delaying action until 2020 could save mitigation costs in the short-term. Politicians tend to embrace quick fixes, as elections are won or lost based on short-term results – a fact that explains much of the foot dragging on climate action. This is why a key message from the Emissions Gap Report is that we, the people, need to raise the issue of the cost of inaction to national public debate. Not acting today will increase the cost of actions in the future. Is it in any way smart or beneficial for countries to keep postponing climate response?

Delaying the decision today to invest in sustainable energy and clean transport will lock-in ‘dirty’ national infrastructures for decades. The end result might be countries that are not fit for development in the long term. Political decisions that ignore current low-carbon interventions will also increase the climate change mitigation costs in the medium- and long-terms. Passing along the bill for past mistakes to future generations represents a paradox that we cannot continue persist. Why is this not a leading debate across the globe?

In smaller countries such as those in Central America, the failure of others to act – particularly the G20 countries, which generate about 80% of all emissions – will mean missing the agreed 2°C climate target. The result will be an increase in the costs of adaptation and the challenges associated with the lack of adaptation. Every country, but especially a small nation, therefore has an interest to act and to push other countries to do the same.

Gone are the days where the sole focus could rest on Europe or the US. Today a stronger push is needed in emerging economies like Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Mexico. These countries need their own citizens to ask governments not to hide behind the flawed, old business-as-usual arguments. After all, business-as-usual development has not worked for a long time.

Gone are the days where the sole focus could rest on Europe or the US. Today a stronger push is needed in emerging economies like Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Mexico. These countries need their own citizens to ask governments not to hide behind the flawed, old business-as-usual arguments.

Cleaner, better and more efficient

Despite the evidence that the emissions gap is not getting smaller, the report brings positive news: the gap can be bridged. The emissions reduction potential in 2030 (relative to business-as-usual emissions) is estimated to be 29 Gt CO2. In order to encourage action, the report looks at the multiple benefits that can be accrued from energy efficiency – not only for reducing emissions but also in achieving national development objectives.

Between now and 2030, energy efficiency improvements could avoid at least 2.5-3.3 Gt CO2 each year. Just as well, these measures have multiple benefits beyond reducing the emissions gap, such as increased productivity, job creation, and energy security. There are also ties to poverty reduction and climate change mitigation objectives that link to ensuring clean energy access and energy efficiency promotion.

This win-win situation is the message that must be leveraged in national debates. After all, the point is not mitigation for the climate’s sake – this is not how economics or politics work. What the world needs are viable solutions in the current economic and political systems. Development challenges require development answers, and we cannot prescribe “carbon solutions” disconnected from the politics of progression.

Focus on energy efficiency as well as preparing for the impacts of climate change are therefore critical. The more visible that the evidence of fiscal savings from climate actions is as well as the benefits of preparing for and adapting to climate change, the more we will see these concerns entering the ministries of finance and planning.

The public has a central role to play in curbing climate change: one of the most transformative actions will need to come from citizens: they need to signal that far more is expected from their politicians and law-making bodies. In the short term that starts with demanding mandatory government commitments and quantifiable targets that can be scrutinized on a local level. Domestic demands for climate action could be the strongest and most transformative driver for closing the emissions gap this decade.

Lima will start in a few days. We should turn it into a far more visible and accountable conference of the parties. Back home, governments will need to explain the actions they will undertake in order to close the emissions gap and face the public pressure whenever their actions fail to do enough. The numbers are out both from the IPCC and the Emissions Gap Report, the positive case for a new climate economy keeps getting more robust, people are demanding greener and healthier cities. So, 2015 will be the year for integrating climate actions, such energy efficiency measures or clean energy investments, into the national strategy to deliver cleaner and better development.

More information:

  • Emissions Gap Report 2014 Executive Summary
  • Download Emissions Gap Report 2014
  • Emissions Gap Website

* Founder and Director of Nivela and Board Member of the Steering Committee of the UNEP Emissions Gap Report.

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