Clive Hamilton, Australian thinker and economist, is Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, a member of the Australian government's Climate Change Authority and the author of "Requiem for a species" and "Earthmasters: Playing God with the climate". Three weeks before the opening of the COP 21 climate conference in Paris, he raises here two major questions: "What will be the magnitude of the global carbon budget?" and "What is the proportion of total carbon budget allocated to each nation?"


 

Every leader arriving at the Paris Conference of the Parties in late November is officially committed, under the conference’s legally binding convention, to act in a way that prevents dangerous climate change. In practice this promise has been translated into the goal of keeping global warming at no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level.

But what must be done to limit warming to 2°C?

In recent years thinking about this question has settled on the “budget approach” to setting global emission reductions. Because warming is associated with increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this approach imposes a limit on the volume of greenhouse gases that can be emitted over the next decades.

When future emissions are added to past emissions the total budget will tell us, with a fair degree of certainty, how hot the planet will become. The advantage of the budget approach is that it makes it crystal clear that the amount of abatement a nation undertakes over the next decade cannot be divorced from what it must do later.

Although not officially acknowledged, the Paris negotiations will be dominated by two monumental questions. The first is: How big will the global carbon budget be?

To give the world a two-thirds chance of keeping warming below 2°C, global emissions must be kept below 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the period 2000-2050. Since the year 2000 the world has been “spending” this budget at a frightening rate, and every year emissions continue to rise the probability that the 2°C target will be abandoned increases.

So far every nation is holding to the position that warming must be limited to 2°C. Yet it may be only a matter of time before one of the major parties capitulates and announces that such a limit is too difficult, by which it would mean that its government is unwilling to bear the economic and political costs.

Such a capitulation would be catastrophic, for it would destroy overnight the global consensus and inevitably see other nations accept warming of, say, 3°C. All of the scientific evidence tells us that warming of that magnitude would be “game over” for the Earth as we know it.

Allocating the budget

The second monumental question is: How much of the total carbon budget is each nation entitled to? In other words, if the nations meeting at the Paris Conference are committed to the 2°C target, how should the global emissions budget be allocated among them?

The most defensible equity principle is known as the “modified contraction and convergence approach”. Under this principle total global emissions would decline rapidly to a safe level by 2050 while each nation’s emissions would converge to the same amount per person. Poorer nations would be allowed to increase their emissions in earlier years so as not to impede their economic development, which means richer nations would have to cut their emissions more deeply.

This equity principle allocates a fair share of the global emissions budget to each nation, which could then spend it however it chose. To illustrate, under this regime Australia would need to reduce its emissions by around 50 per cent by 2030. In fact, the Australian Prime Minister will arrive at the Paris Conference promising to cut emissions by only 26 per cent.

When a rich nation like Australia exceeds its fair share of global emissions it is either asking the rest of the world, including poor countries, to carry some of its burden, or it is effectively abandoning the 2°C commitment and accepting all of the calamitous consequences that must follow.

This is what Australia is now doing, and it is joined in this brutal calculus by Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia. The United States, China and the European Union are also collaborators in this deception.

So this is the subterfuge, the secret lie, at the heart of the Paris negotiations. All nations have formally committed themselves to limiting warming to 2°C; yet every nation’s emission reduction target falls short, mostly well short, of what is necessary.

Every leader will stand at the Conference podium and declare, with emotion-choked voices and tears in their eyes, that we must protect the world for our children and grandchildren.

Yet in the private meeting rooms at Paris-Le Bourget, where the tables will be thumped and the deals will be brokered, they will cynically insist on protecting their country’s “national interest”, refusing to match their beautiful words with the commitments to realize them.

Perhaps we will witness a miracle at Paris-Le Bourget – and not one that is merely a miracle of promises. But in the absence of divine intervention, we are likely to see delegates walking away smiling smugly even though they have just committed the world to a thousand years of woe.

 

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