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‘Carbon budget’ talks urgent, warns Lord Stern

Barren Landscape in Greenland

A barren landscape near Qaqortoq, Greenland. Lord Stern said: ‘Delay is dangerous because greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere.’ Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Carbon budget’ talks urgent, warns Lord Stern” was written by Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, for The Guardian on Sunday 29th September 2013 18.45 UTC

Talks must start urgently on the world’s “carbon budget” – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be poured into the atmosphere without triggering dangerous climate change – as without radical policies to cut emissions humanity will exceed the limit within 15 to 25 years, the world’s leading climate economist has warned.

Lord Stern, the former World Bank chief economist and author of the landmark study of the economics of global warming, said the world faced a stark choice. On Friday, after days of deliberations, the world’s leading climate scientists put a figure for the first time on how much carbon dioxide humanity can continue to pour into the air before overheating the planet. The stark conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was that half to two-thirds of the “budget” have already used up.

The IPCC report points out that to have at least a 50% chance of keeping to less than 2C of warming, regarded by scientists as the threshold of safety, we must emit no more than 820-1445 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during the rest of this century, said Stern.

He added: “Given that the world is currently emitting about 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in terms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent each year, this report implies that, even if we were to stay at current levels, we would exhaust the emissions budget within 15 to 25 years.”

Despite repeated pledges by governments to cut emissions, greenhouse gas output is still rising. Lord Stern said the carbon budget calculations of the IPCC must form the basis of international negotiations on climate change. He said: “If we continue to increase annual emissions, the budget will be depleted even sooner. That is why I think nations, cities, communities and companies will recognise the importance of these findings and will increase the urgency and scale of the emissions reductions that they are planning to undertake. I also expect this emissions budget to focus the minds of governments in the international negotiations towards a new climate change treaty, to be signed in Paris at the end of 2015.”

But world governments are deeply divided on how to portion out the remaining carbon budget. The issue divides countries because the implication of the calculations is that some of the fossil fuel reserves held by governments and companies will have to be left in the ground. This will open up new rifts between developed and developing countries over who should bear the burden of emissions cuts.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate commissioner, said the budget must be taken into account in United Nations negotiations, set to culminate in a conference in Paris in 2015 at which governments are supposed to forge a new global agreement on emissions.

She said: “Hopefully this will add momentum for governments to act – 2015 is the deadline when all governments must be ready to commit internationally. The EU is getting ready with our 2030 climate and energy targets that we will present before year end.”

But the Chinese co-chair of the IPCC working group, Dr Qin Dahe, told the Financial Times that the idea China should drastically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in time was impossible. Other developing countries are understood to have similar concerns, worried that they will be pressed to curb their emissions when rich countries have benefited from decades of untrammelled fossil fuel use.

But diplomats are concerned that discussions around a carbon budget could derail the already fragile process of negotiations on climate. “This could wreck the Paris talks,” one senior participant told the Guardian.

The carbon budget figure was the last element of the IPCC summary report to be decided, in hours of furious debate in the early hours of Friday morning in Stockholm, as the deadline for the summary publication loomed.

The IPCC discussions were dominated by governments who feared that including a budget figure would disrupt the UN talks because of the difficulty of getting global agreement on such a contentious issue.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said all governments must step up their efforts. Most of the world’s leading economies have set out pledges to curb their emissions, but these pledges fall far short of the action the IPCC has said is needed. “We know that the total effort to limit warming does not add up to what is needed to bend the emissions curve,” Figueres said. “To steer humanity out of the high danger zone, governments must step up immediate climate action and craft an agreement in 2015 that helps to scale up and speed up the global response.”


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