Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How Do You Solve a Problem Like ...

Convened in a Sound-of-Music setting by Germany's Angela Merkel, once known as the 'climate chancellor,' leaders of the G7 nations agreed yesterday to bring to an end the age of the fossil-fuel economy ... someday. The actual agreement calls for global greenhouse gas reductions of 40-70% from 2010 levels by 2050, with near complete elimination of fossil fuels by century's end. While some analysts called it a "symbolic boost," the announcement by some of the world's most powerful leaders adds momentum to the climate discussions that are intensifying in the run-up to Paris. Several features of yesterday's agreement are worth noting:

  • Many have called the agreement a "diplomatic coup" for Merkel, who as environment minister in the 1990s played an important role in the Kyoto talks, but has been relatively quiet on the climate issue in recent years. Bringing Japan and Canada, whose governments border on climate denial,  to co-sign the agreement is being treated as big news on the international front.
  • The actual agreement, on the other hand, may not be such big news. No mechanisms are cited. At the low end, 40% reductions by 2050 are hardly news at all, though the agreement urges countries to aim for the "upper end," i.e. a 70% reduction. Some observers consider that target within the range of a 2C temperature increase, regarded as tolerable by climate scientists, though others insist that near-elimination of fossil fuels by 2050 would be a safer goal. At the World Resources Institute spokesperson Jennifer Morgan was unequivocal: "You need to be [at total decarbonization] by 2050 for CO2 ... if you want a high chance of staying below 2C." At 350.org, May Boeve called the agreement a "signal to investors" rather than an actual remedy.
  • On another key issue, the G7 leaders made no commitment at all to the Green Climate Fund, currently funded at $10 billion per year. In 2009 the G8 and other wealthy nations promised to fund it at $100 billion per year, and without some assurance of that funding, many observers feel the intended beneficiaries, the world's least developed and poorest nations, will be reluctant to sign on to a new agreement in Paris. As Kofi Annan said recently (see previous post), promises only matter if they are kept. Alone among the G7 leaders, Merkel has moved to double Germany's contribution. And the US?
  • One small but salient detail from yesterday's agreement: the leaders promised to support an initiative in Paris to "promote increased ambition over time," i.e. to include regular reviews of progress, and a mechanism for ramping up national commitments, as the Paris agreement unfolds after 2020. As most observers doubt that a completely satisfactory agreement can be reached this year, building in a method for improving whatever agreement is made is seen as an important part of the larger international process. 
Is the G7's announcement yesterday good news then, or even news at all? Perhaps the best answer comes from corporate "environmental advisor" Tom Burke, who noted, "What really matters is what gets done in the real economy ... You're going to shift the needle of interest in the investing community away from oil and gas and towards renewables." In other words, it's the corporations, stupid, but has the G7 really gotten their attention?

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