The heart of a new global climate deal begins to take shape

By Lisa Friedman | 07/06/2015 08:15 AM EDT

New analyses are giving mixed grades to the most recent greenhouse gas emissions targets submitted to the United Nations, with particularly low marks for the pledge from South Korea.

New analyses are giving mixed grades to the most recent greenhouse gas emissions targets submitted to the United Nations, with particularly low marks for the pledge from South Korea.

With the targets from South Korea, China, Iceland and Serbia all submitted at the end of June, the United Nations now has plans from 44 countries including the 28-member European Union for cutting carbon. Those and others expected to arrive over the next few months will form the heart of a new global agreement to tackle climate change over the coming decades.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that, collectively, the cuts won’t be enough, at least initially, to avert catastrophic climate change.


"Countries are putting forward stronger efforts than they have before, but clearly they will have to do more," said Jake Schmidt, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international team.

"Countries are being moderate in how they are going about their targets, so there is going to be a need to bridge the emissions gap to stay on the 2-degree pathway," he said.

Whether any countries will boost their targets before the completion of a new accord in Paris in December remains to be seen. But a major battle will surely be over designing a mechanism to make sure the targets are routinely reviewed and bolstered — ensuring, said Schmidt, that the Paris targets "are the floor, not the ceiling." That kind of ratcheting-up mechanism, as it is being called, has been embraced by the United States but opposed by China.

In the meantime, experts say the newest targets are welcome additions to atmospheric efforts but still too weak.

A new study by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) — a consortium of scientists and energy modelers — declared South Korea’s pledge to cut emissions 37 percent below business-as-usual levels by 2030 "inadequate." That target ultimately was more ambitious than ones the Korean government initially considered, but CAT analysts said it is still consistent with a global temperature rise between 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Blowing through the 2 C ‘guardrail’?

"South Korea appears to have listened to criticism of its draft proposals, and scrambled to add more, but international trading will not address the fact that its domestic emissions are projected to double in 2030. This is not an effort to help hold warming to 2C," Kornelis Blok, director of science at the Dutch consultancy Ecofys, which is part of CAT, said in a statement.

Korea’s pledge notes that part of the carbon-reduction target will be obtained through carbon credits, which the CAT analysis argued would actually allow the country’s emissions to double by 2030, from 1990 levels.

Schmidt also called for Korea, the world’s seventh-largest emitter, to bolster its target before Paris. In a blog last week, he argued that the country, which put forward a strong target during the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, summit, hosts the Green Climate Fund and was an early adopter of a national cap-and-trade program, could lose its mantle as a climate leader.

"South Korea should strengthen this target in the coming months as it still reflects a weaker emissions trajectory than their Copenhagen target," he wrote.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), meanwhile, analyzed China’s official pledge to peak its emissions growth around 2030 and to boost its share of renewable energy to 20 percent by that year. As part of the target, the Chinese government said it will curb its carbon intensity — that is, emissions per unit of gross domestic product — between 60 to 65 percent below 2005 levels. It also vowed to increase its forest carbon stock volume by about 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels.

"The new carbon intensity target builds on China’s existing target to reduce intensity 40-45 percent by 2020, and it’s roughly consistent with scenarios showing China’s CO2 emissions peaking in 2030. While this target demonstrates China’s intention to decouple carbon emissions from economic growth, some analysts suggest that China could peak its emissions much earlier and at a lower intensity," WRI analysts wrote.

And, echoing the language other activists are using to describe the Paris targets, analysts added, "Indeed, the INDCs [intended nationally determined contributions] overall — both China’s and those of other countries, like the European Union and the United States — should be viewed as a floor rather than a ceiling on ambition."

A work still in progress

The Center for Science and Environment released its own analysis calling China’s goal ambitious — and in fact more ambitious than those of the United States or Europe. The group estimated that China’s cuts will amount to keeping 6.5 billion metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. The U.S. plan to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the group estimated, will cut 2 billion tons of carbon per year from its business-as-usual scenarios.

Still, the India-based environmental group cautioned, China’s target is not enough to keep temperature-rise below 2 C.

"Under the Cancun Agreement in 2010, China had pledged to reduce emissions intensity of its GDP by 40-45 per cent compared to 2005 by 2020. Now, it has pledged to reduce emissions intensity of its GDP by 60-65 per cent compared to 2005 by 2030. So, China will be reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by less than half the rate during 2020-2030 period, compared to 2010-2020 period," the analysis notes.

India, meanwhile, has not yet submitted its formal Paris pledge. Brazil signed a joint agreement with the United States to boost renewable energy and follow its own laws to end illegal deforestation but also has not yet formally submitted targets.

Politicians, though, remained optimistic. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement praised the deal between the United States and Brazil and called for more countries to step up to the plate.

"As the alarming impacts of climate change grow more and more frequent, world leaders are working domestically and internationally to enact the changes needed to stave off the worst effects. These efforts are all the more important as we work globally to set a new pathway forward to decrease harmful emissions and transform to low-carbon economies," he said.

Kerry noted that the targets announced by June represent more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions.

"While much work remains to be done to secure a durable climate agreement in Paris, I commend these leaders for helping to build momentum towards this goal. I encourage more countries to come forward with ambitious commitments as we draw closer to this critical meeting," he said.