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Satellite view of the Americas on Earth Day
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre
22 April 2015 7:25

Scientists set out eight essential elements for UN climate deal

Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

22.04.2015 | 7:25am
Paris Summit 2015Scientists set out eight essential elements for UN climate deal

Seventeen high-profile scientists have set out eight demands for the UN negotiations on climate change in Paris at the end of this year.

These “essential elements” must be part of the UN’s new agreement to ensure a climatically safe future where global temperatures are limited to below 2C and irreversible planetary changes are avoided, says the statement, compiled by the Earth League of scientists.

Released to coincide with Earth Day, the intervention is backed by scientists from across the globe, including Ottmar Edenhofer and Youba Sokona, who co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report into the options for avoiding dangerous climate change.

Several of the elements are more ambitious than the pathways outlined by the IPCC, however, and go beyond the level of ambition currently on the table for Paris.

1. “Governments must put into practice their commitment to limit global warming to below 2C.”

Governments agreed on a 2C limit to global temperature rise during the UN’s climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 – and there is currently a review underway on whether this should be tightened to 1.5C.

However, the statement points out that governments are not showing the commitment necessary to achieve this goal. Currently agreed policy puts temperatures on course to hit around 4C by the end of the century, say the scientists.

Nations are expected to come forward throughout the year with their pledges for the new UN climate deal, which will make it clearer whether or not this 2C goal could be achieved.

2. “The remaining global carbon budget – the limit of what we can still emit in the future – must be well below 1000 Gt CO2 to have a reasonable chance to hold the 2C line.”

This was the budget set out in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, released in 2013. Since industrialisation began, humans have emitted around 2000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, which means that the world is already two thirds of the way through its total budget.

The fact that global emissions are still rising means that the remaining 1000 gigatonnes would be used up within the next 25 years, say the scientists.

The carbon budget is a politically complex issue at the UN climate talks, because of the difficulties involved in allocating it fairly among countries. Respecting the budget would also mean leaving at least three quarters of all known fossil fuels in the ground, the scientists say in the statement.

There is currently a smattering of references to the carbon budget in the UN text being negotiated as the basis for the Paris deal, but there are no guarantees that it will make the final cut. The text as it stands is 90 pages long, and will be cut and amended dramatically before it is signed off in Paris.

3. “We need to fundamentally transform the economy and adopt a global goal to phase out greenhouse gases completely by mid-century.”

To secure future prosperity, the Paris deal needs to agree to making the world zero-carbon by 2050 or soon after, the statement says. This needs to be accompanied by further national commitments by governments to impose a price on carbon, and the possibility to ramp up ambition through regular reviews. Fossil fuel subsidies should be removed, and investment redirected towards a “global renewable energy revolution”, say the scientists.

The IPCC is less specific, saying that to keep warming below 2C requires “near zero emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases by the end of the century.” Net zero emissions means fossil fuels can continue to be burnt, as long as the emissions are absorbed.

Johan Rockström, chair of the Earth League and executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, tells Carbon Brief why the scientists decided that absolute zero emissions was the better approach:

“If you have net zero carbon, you open up a lot of difficulties in interpretation â?¦ We think to be on the safe side we need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning to zero by 2050, which will then allow us a little bit of leeway”.

There are currently 15 options for a zero or net-zero goal in the UN negotiating text. Carbon Brief has examined the options in detail.

4. “Equity is critical for a successful global agreement in Paris.”

Every country must formulate a plan to deeply reduce its emissions, but rich countries and progressive industries must take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century for the deal to be fair, say the scientists.

Developing countries should make plans that are more ambitious than they can achieve alone, knowing they can rely on their richer counterparts to provide the money and technology, they say.

While all countries are behind an equitable outcome in theory, the negotiations have been bogged down so far by disagreement over what “equitable” actually means, and how it can be put into practice. Some nations, for instance, prefer to focus on historical responsibility for climate change, while others support an emphasis on current emissions and capacity to reduce them.

5. “We must unleash a wave of climate innovation for the global good, and enable universal access to the solutions we already have.”

The challenge of climate change requires “unprecedented technological advances”, say the scientists. To this end, they are supporting research and development of technology that will allow more sustainable energy and land use. This could be helped along by international cooperation, strict laws and standards, public and private investments and clear economic incentives, they say.

Technology is likely to appear as one of the main elements of the Paris deal but one of the central challenges is how it can be transferred between countries. The current negotiating text suggests a number of options to overcome these blocks, which may yet appear in the final deal.

6. “We need a global strategy to reduce vulnerability, build resilience and deal with loss and damage of communities from climate impacts, including collective action and scaled-up support.”

The impacts of climate change do not begin at 2C – many people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, are already feeling the impacts of climate change, today’s statement says.

By themselves, these societies have little hope of coping with the social and economic burdens imposed by climate impacts, and the international community should step up to help them, write the scientists.

The topic is likely to arise in Paris, with some of the most vulnerable countries pushing rich countries to help them deal with the “loss and damage” that climate change is expected to impose on their societies and economies. Their efforts received some payoff at the UN’s 2013 climate conference in Warsaw, but how strongly this will feature in the final Paris deal remains uncertain.

7. “We must safeguard carbon sinks and vital ecosystems, which is as important for climate protection as the reduction of emissions.”

According to the IPCC, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from changes to land use add up to 23% of the global total. Actions such as cutting down forests and degrading grasslands and aquatic systems is akin to “killing our best allies in the fight against climate change”, say the scientists.

The UN’s flagship scheme on forest protection, called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (or REDD+), made firm steps forward at the UN’s climate conference in Warsaw in 2013, with a solid framework established to make the scheme a reality.

But the work is far from over. Recent satellite data from the World Resources Institute revealed massive forest loss in Canada and Russia, for instance, while Carbon Brief explored how emissions from degradation was being overlooked by policymakers.

8. “We must urgently realize new scales and sources of climate finance for developing countries to enable our rapid transition to zero-carbon, climate-resilient societies.”

Public funding for reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change must reach around $135 billion every year, say the scientists – a level comparable to current global overseas development aid. This should be accompanied by “significantly larger sums” from the private sector, with governments engaging with banks and pension funds to encourage climate friendly investments.

This demand goes significantly beyond what Paris is expected to deliver in terms of climate finance. Rich countries have pledged to provide $100 billion every year as from 2020, encompassing public and private finance. So far, the fund has amassed just over $10 billion to be provided over a number of years, with no clear roadmap on how to scale this up.

Rockström tells Carbon Brief that the $135 billion figures derives from work done by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, in a report co-authored by Jeffrey Sachs, one of the signatories of the statement.


The intervention taps into a live debate over whether scientists should also be advocates for climate action (see here, here and here). Rockström says:

“What we decided to do was convey the scientific necessity. We’re not making any judgments on whether this is realistic or not, and that was on purpose because we felt it was really time to give a clear message on what is necessary.”

But achieving the kind of changes that the statement sets out is a governance rather than a technological issue. He says:

“The problem is we’re not seeing the world community coming together to collaborate to strengthen global governance to enable all the countries of the world to stay consistent with that target.”

The statement of 17 scientists is part of growing pressure from all quarters ahead to Paris to ensure governments sign a deal that is ambitious and fair.

Main image: Satellite view of the Americas on Earth Day.
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