Nigel Purvis and guest author Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, argue that the most promising and politically realistic way to further increase climate ambition in 2015 is for Europe and other advanced economies to make additional pledges for mitigation that they intend to secure outside their borders. A version of this piece appeared in The Guardian.
Today, the EU will unveil its latest commitment to fighting climate change—a pledge to cut internal emissions at least 40 percent by 2030. The new target represents a good step forward, a hard-fought political compromise at a time of considerable economic difficulty. The EU hopes to leverage this pledge this December in Paris, when Europe will press other nations to forge a new agreement to reduce global climate pollution 60% by 2050. Yet, the EU’s climate plan has a critical flaw: it is incomplete. The EU’s regulations would only reduce emissions within Europe, whereas success on climate depends on Europe also taking steps to cut pollution outside Europe as well. To have any chance of reaching the 60% goal EU must negotiate and finance partnerships to cut pollution in the developing world too.
The EU hopes that by leading at home it will inspire other nations to do the same. That strategy may work to a point. But unfortunately the domestic-only climate policy cannot succeed—the math won’t add up. The domestic emissions cuts that the EU and other major economies are expected to pledge unilaterally by Paris, even if fully implemented, would deliver at most half of the pollution reduction needed through 2030 to keep global warming to 2 degrees C —- the level nations and scientists have agreed is necessary to avoid unmanageable risks of climate catastrophe. Simply put, unilateral pledges in the Paris agreement alone would not create a trajectory in line with a 60% global reduction by 2050.
One simple fix would be for all major economies to do more at home — but this is politically unrealistic in the near-term. China and the United States, the two largest climate polluters, have already set their domestic carbon pledges and are not likely to change them this year. Even the EU may lack the political will to do more internally right now.
Fortunately, there’s an affordable solution that does not depend on additional domestic action in these nations. Many developing nations — from Colombia to India and Indonesia — have an abundance of low cost opportunities to cut climate pollution. Since 2005, for example, Brazil alone has cut more carbon pollution than the entire EU simply by reducing deforestation in the Amazon. Massive forest conservation and restoration on a global scale holds great promise to help meet the 60% goal, as does building low carbon cities, factories and power plants across the developing world.
While all nations should take climate action, one cannot expect developing nations to do more than their fair share: after all, they have done less to cause the problem and have fewer resources to stop it. A system that depends solely on unilateral, self-financed pollution targets by all nations is bound to fall short, with developing nations cutting emissions far less than the optimal amount.
But if the world could find a way to truly work together, the potential for progress would become enormous. As described in a new Climate Advisers analysis by Andreas Dahl-Jørgensen, a new breed of international climate partnerships that supplement rather than replace unilateral climate action could accomplish great things. They could virtually eliminate tropical deforestation and phase-down climate super-pollutants known as HFCs, while also doubling down on progress in emerging economies on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Europe must lead the way toward this collaborative approach before Paris. In addition to internal EU pollution cuts, Europe should pledge to enter into bilateral and multilateral partnerships to reduce at least 1 billion tons of CO2 per year outside the EU each year starting no later than 2020. Helping poor and emerging economies pursue climate-smart development would cost only a small fraction of large additional carbon cuts within the EU. Accelerating climate action in these emerging nations would not only deliver tremendous local development benefits, but also create jobs in Europe by expanding markets for EU companies.
The EU should challenge the United States, Japan and other developed countries to also make comparable international carbon pledges. As host of the G7, Chancellor Angela Merkel is in a unique position to put this proposal to her peers at a leaders’ summit in Germany this June. Negotiating pollution reduction partnerships with developing nations is the type of action that President Obama could pursue using his foreign policy powers and other existing legal authorities without the recalcitrant Congress. Prime Minister Abe is looking for new ways to lead on climate change internationally following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which has made reducing Japan’s emissions more difficult.
Last year the EU took a half step toward this type of collaborative climate policy. In September 2014, at the UN Climate Summit, the EU endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, which committed the EU and other developed countries to put in place large-scale economic incentives to eliminate natural forest loss globally by 2030. Making good on that promise and spreading it to other economic sectors this year would remove the two largest obstacles to forging a strong new global climate pact in Paris. Currently, vulnerable African and island nations are ambivalent about the emerging Paris agreement because it may not do enough to reduce climate pollution or spur economic investment in those nations. Strong pledges from the EU and other developed nations to reduce climate pollution outside their borders would address those concerns and seal an ambitious climate deal in Paris.