Closing the Gigaton Gap

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 4:00 AM PST

If countries follow through on the pledges they made in Copenhagen last year, the world could achieve 60 percent of the emissions cuts that scientists say are needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. At last year's climate negotiations in Copenhagen, world leaders pledged to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). A new report from the United Nations Environment Program and the World Resources Institute released Tuesday indicates that while the pledges don't go far enough, following through on them would at least put the world on the right path.

Over the past year, 138 countries have either formally signed on to the Copenhagen Accord or signaled that they would—and combined they are responsible for more than 86 percent of global emissions. The nations of the world released a combined 48 gigatons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in 2009. If countries follow through on their pledges, total global emissions would be reduced by six gigatons by 2020 (as compared to what we'd release if countries took no action to cut emissions).

If countries decide to go with their least-ambitious pledges, emissions would continue to climb to 53 gigatons per year. However, if the most-ambitious targets are met, they would grow to 49 gigatons. The report notes that even the more-ambitious route is still about five gigatons short of the meeting the goal of keeping warming to under 2 degrees. But it's much better than the alternative, which would mean allowing emissions to continue to shoot up to 56 gigatons, the path we're on if no one takes action.

The report authors hope the findings serve as a reality check for negotiators meeting in Mexico next week. "We need to heed and respond to these findings in Cancun, and countries need to make commitments that reflect them," said Janet Ranganathan, vice president of science and research for WRI.

Amy Fraenkel, director of UNEP's North America office, noted that closing that gap is achievable if existing clean energy technologies are implemented, efficiency is improved, further steps are taken to reduce deforestation, and steps to reduce emissions from the transportation sector are taking.

At last year's summit, world leaders also said they would consider lowring their goal for temperature rise to 1.5 degrees in future talks—which is what the countries most affected by climate change have said is needed to protect them. That, of course, would require countries to significantly improve their targets.

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