US-climate-change-negotiator-todd-stern

U.S. climate change negotiator Todd Stern explains the laborious proceedings in Lima, Peru. © Carlos Garcia Granthon

"There will be coal burning." Negotiators from around the world produced a four-page climate-change accord (pdf) after some sleep-deprived haggling over the weekend in Lima, Peru, but the agreement could be summed up in those five words.

For the first time, all nations agreed that all nations must have a plan to curb greenhouse gases. That includes not just reducing pollution ("mitigation" in the jargon), but also "adaptation" (preparing for the climate changes already in the works), "finance" (money for the poor), "technology development" (better ways to get energy or reduce pollution), "capacity building" (helping poor countries develop) and "transparency" (ensuring nobody cheats).

At the same time, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with 2013 marking another record year for pollution, as evidenced by the constant hum of diesel generators in Lima that helped keep the heated negotiations cooler, among other energy needs. The single largest source of climate changing pollution continues to be burning coal, whether in wealthy nations like the U.S. or developing economies like China.

The shift of a single word—from a "shall" to a "may"—means the world will very likely continue to burn lots of coal. Instead of being required to provide "quantifiable information" about their greenhouse-gas emissions, countries may choose whether or not to include those statistics in their pledges instead, known in the jargon as "intended nationally determined contributions." These pledges or INDCs are promises that come in a variety of flavors – not just strict pollution cuts like those from the E.U. nations, but also softer targets, such as reducing the amount of energy used to produce a single widget in India while producing more widgets overall (a so-called “carbon intensity” goal).

China and India led the charge against any monitoring or verification of such pledges. Worse, the Chinese and Indian negotiators do not appear to want INDCs to be comparable with each other. In other words, the pledges "may" prove mutually inscrutable.

In fact, that is already the case. For example, the E.U. has pledged to go 40 percent below 1990 pollution levels by 2030 while the U.S. will strive to go as much as 28 percent below 2005 levels in the same period. Let's do the math to put this in comparable terms:

• U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 1990: 6.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent

• U.S. emissions in 2005: 7.3 billion metric tons CO2-e

• U.S. emissions target for 2030: 5.2 billion metric tons CO2-e

That means the U.S. will—at best—cut greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, or not even half as ambitious as the European target. And China has only pledged to reach a maximum level of pollution "around 2030," but without any commitment to an estimate of how high that peak might be.

No wonder all the negotiators in Lima were able to agree to note "the significant gap" between what has been promised and what is needed "consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 or 1.5 degrees Celsius."

To be consistent, the world would have to become a whole lot more ambitious fast, and that means emulating (and then surpassing) China, which has also promised a massive build out of dams, nuclear power plants, wind farms and solar energy to help reduce its coal burning. Such energy transitions have proven to be slow in the past so if any country wants to continue to burn coal and keep climate change in check, then no coal-burning power plant can be built without some form of CO2 capture and control (the gas can be buried or put to use), anywhere in the world. That is certainly not the reality today, with just a handful of carbon capture and storage projects in existence, but negotiations continue as to how the countries of the world can band together to promote such a shift to less-polluting economies.

Coal remains the fastest growing energy source in the world, according to the International Energy Agency, though the rate of that growth has begun to slow. China alone burned nearly 200 million metric tons more of the dirty black rock in 2013 than in 2012—more growth than the rest of the world combined—and China now burns more than half of all the coal that gets burned around the world. Coal is the main reason China has become the world's largest polluter as well as repeatedly enshrouded in choking smog. Because health and environmental impacts are not included in its price, coal remains cheap and India has even begun to follow the same path as China, suggesting that coal burning in that country will continue to grow as well.

Reductions in other areas—sustainable city-planning, energy efficiency, better farming practices and less clearing of forests—and in other greenhouse gases, such as methane or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), can buy time to get coal burning under control. Cities, provinces and states have begun to act where nations are slow. Quebec is cutting pollution while Canada as a whole spews more, and the city of Melbourne is aiming for carbon neutrality within a nation, Australia, that repealed its carbon tax in July and promptly began burning more coal.

As it stands, however faulty, climate pledges to date are enough to begin to restrain global warming—if honored. China, the E.U. and the U.S. have already announced their targets, and what other polluters promise to do matters. Chile, Mexico, Peru and others pledged to replant some 20 million hectares of land to begin sucking CO2 out of the sky through good old photosynthesis. And pledges that have been hinted at could bring the world halfway to total global emissions of below 45 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases by 2030, or roughly the amount deemed necessary to hold warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Important countries to watch on that front include Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan and Russia.

Even if strong pledges are made in 2015 there is so far nothing to prevent any of these countries from doing what Canada did under the Kyoto Protocol: failing to keep its promise. The only punishment appears to be shame. Promises are one thing, but one form of verification will be very easy to monitor: how much coal gets burned using the atmosphere as a dump.