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Climate change: a race against the clock

Paris conferencia logoThe possibility of avoiding a climate change catastrophe exists. But the window of opportunity is closing fast. The climate change conference to be held in Paris at the end of November will certainly act as a decisive moment in this race against the clock.

For years the target for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has been to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of these at a maximum level of 450 parts per million (ppm). That goal requires cutting GHG emissions by 80 percent by 2050, which would ensure that the change in global temperature does not exceed 2 degrees Celsius.

As things stand today, achieving this goal of 450 ppm appears very difficult. To do so, the richest countries of the world should already be markedly reducing their emissions and by 2025, which is really just around the corner, the greenhouse gas emissions of all countries, rich and poor, should be falling. The possibility of achieving this goal exists, but is at risk of vanishing.

The twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be held in Paris in just a few weeks time. The basic draft document for the COP21 negotiations has already been released (October 5) and is marked by serious problems. It is a 20-page document from which the fate of humanity literally hangs.

As is known, in the framework of the negotiations ahead of COP21, each country is called to present their independently determined national commitments (now known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs).These commitments beg the following question: Who determines the emission reductions that each country should apply?

Since negotiations on reductions and emission ceilings have been stalled for years (to be exact, since shortly before COP15 six years ago in Copenhagen), it was thought that it would be better to allow each country the absolute freedom to establish its own national goals.

Today we have before us the national commitments that have been voluntarily presented to the UNFCCC secretariat. The result is truly discouraging. Several renowned economists have calculated the sum of all these national targets and found that they correspond to an equivalent of just 44 gigatons of CO2, when what is required is a cut of 55 gigatons by 2050 to keep on track for climate change of just 2 degrees Celsius.

It is to be expected that between now and the beginning of COP21 in the French capital, several countries will amend their national commitments in order to achieve that goal. But the negotiation document has a flaw: it does not contain a mechanism to ensure compliance with these Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

In reality, there is little hope of stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases at 450 ppm. To achieve this goal, greenhouse gas emissions can not exceed the maximum level of between 800 and a thousand gigatons of CO2: yet since 1880, 535 gigatons have already been emitted. Meanwhile, 250 gigatons have already been allocated to investments made in infrastructure linked to the fossil fuel industry in all its forms. Companies that have made such investments will wish to recover them and thus will do everything possible to ensure their facilities continue to operate and emit gigatons of CO2. That is, we are stuck on a path toward some really nasty surprises in terms of climate change.

There are also forces within the financial world that tend to keep us trapped on this path. Today the top 200 businesses related to the fossil fuel industry have a market value of around 4 trillion dollars and a good portion of that amount is based on the value of their reserves. If a strong agreement were achieved at COP21, with a clear commitment to reduce emissions, the value of these reserves would suffer a sharp downward adjustment, perhaps of up to 60 percent.

The connections between the fossil fuel industry and the financial world are very strong and this would bring with it serious consequences. For example, it is estimated that pension funds and individual retirement accounts in the United States have 47 percent of shares in the oil and natural gas companies of the country. Clearly, in the financial sector there is also reluctance to change the energy profile of the global economy.

Only pressure from the peoples of all countries can counteract these forces. Perhaps there is still time, beyond what happens at COP21.
(La Jornada)

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