Are the CO2 Emissions Reduction Targets Enough to Stop Climate Catastrophe?
Michael E. Mann and Subhankar Banerjee discuss the emissions reduction commitments made by countries leading up to the UN Paris meeting on climate change
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Tuesday, March 31, is the United Nations’ deadline for countries to submit their plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The UN is working towards an agreement at the Paris climate summit in December of this year.
With us to discuss the UN deadline and climate change and whether these talks and agreements [incompr.] are enough to address the climate catastrophe are our two guests, Michael E. Mann and Subhankar Banerjee.
Joining us from State College, Pennsylvania, is Michael E. Mann. Michael is distinguished research professor and the director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and author of the book The Hockey Stick and Climate Wars.
And also joining us now from Port Townsend, Washington, Subhankar Banerjee. Subhankar is an Environmental Humanities Scholar and Activist. He founded ClimateStorytellers.org and is the editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.
Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us today.
DR. MICHAEL E. MANN, DIR. OF EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE CENTER, PENN STATE UNIV.: Thanks. It’s good to be with you.
PERIES: So, let’s take stock of the countries, the greatest-emitting countries–China, the U.S., E.U., India, Russian Federation, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the top-ten emitting groups. They amount to about 77.6 percent of carbon emission in the world. Combined if we could get serious and their plans actually work, we might go a long way to address climate change.
So, Michael, let’s begin with you. As a scientist, perhaps you could tell us about how countries are actually measuring greenhouse gas emissions. And how are the reductions going to be measured and monitored in the plans at the UN?
MANN: Well, there’s a lot of accounting that has to be done to estimate carbon emissions, because, of course, we have carbon emissions that come from energy generation coal-fired power plants, the burning of oil, the burning of gasoline by automobiles and in the transportation sector. So it requires a lot of measurement, a lot of accounting. And as you allude to, the U.S. and China are the two largest emitters on the face of the planet. The fact that there has been a historic agreement between these two nations just this past year to lower their carbon emissions sends a very important signal going into the all-important Paris climate negotiations that the two biggest emitters on the planet are ready to get serious about this problem. Hopefully that means all the other nations are up to the task as well.
PERIES: And, Subhankar, what do we know about the countries that are tabling plans? And how real are these plans? Because from what I saw in terms of what China had tabled, some of their reduction plans are a bit hopeful, in the sense that it’s factoring in technology that doesn’t even exist yet.
SUBHANKAR BANERJEE, EDITOR, ARCTIC VOICES: RESISTANCE AT THE TIPPING POINT: Well, I mean, you’re absolutely right that it is hopeful. And as Michael mentioned, that the very summit will be a very significant summit.
So far what we know is that the E.U. as a bloc has committed 40 percent reduction by 2030 based on the 1990 level. Norway has committed 50 percent, and also 40 percent or more, they have said. And Switzerland has committed 50 percent. That’s so far what we know. U.S. has not given a number, but what is generally being believed: that will come in the range of 26 to 28 percent, a number that has been floated by 2025, but not based on 1990 level, but 2005 level. That’s what is going on. And all these countries have a deadline of March 31, and they’ll all pledge their commitment to reduction.
But the problem is that, as you pointed out, how real are these numbers. One of the key studies that have come out is by eminent economist Nicholas Stern of the Institute at the London School of Economics, just–I believe it came out just last week. And Stern team shows that based on what is being talked about will be committed towards the Paris summit not only is not enough, but these commitments collectively will still put us something like 20 billion tons a year of CO2 in the air above what is deemed to be safe, to keep the temperature below the 2000–below the 2 degrees centigrade warming above the preindustrial level.
So there is a lot of negotiation between now and October that’ll take place, and countries like India you mentioned, and a lot of the Southern bloc countries, it looks like they’re not really going to commit to anything by this March 31 deadline, but by October 1, because everybody has to put in their numbers by October 1 so that the negotiators then can figure out by November, when the actual meeting starts, whether those numbers add up to anything significant or not. So that’s what we know so far.
PERIES: And whoever knows more about this can jump in. What do we actually know in terms of what people are tabling? And I know the UN is working towards an agreement. Now, the problem with these agreements have been that there’s no one actually monitoring and there are no consequences to not actually reaching these targets. So there’s no enforcement body taking place or factored into this. So how are we going to make sure that they honor these emission reduction plans?
BANERJEE: And that’s actually–you’re absolutely right. This honoring thing is–somebody has to monitor it.
But what is taking place, I can give you an example that we know right now, that the Copenhagen Accord, as you know, the climate change summit at Copenhagen, became a failure, but the Copenhagen Accord was signed. And, for example, Canada made what [incompr.] everybody commitment some of the countries that signed on to the accord. And what we know is that Canada not only did not actually–have been able to honor their commitment, but has gone a little bit in the reverse direction. And that’s primarily coming from Canada’s push for Canadian tar sands that’s coming into the market. And the U.S. is in a kind of a similar situation, that the two countries that I personally see that is deeply problematic is these two North American countries, U.S. and Canada. Canada is what they’re doing right now. They’re going into the various provincial governments and asking for their input so that they can come up with some sort of a respectable number. But it’s–who knows what that number will become?
And then the U.S. sends what the Copenhagen Accord was: on the face it looked like U.S. committed 17 percent by 2020 based on 2005 level. If you translate that based on 1990 level, which is exactly what E.U. is going with, that came to about 4 percent reduction based on 1990 level by 2020, and by 42 percent was what was being talked about by 2030. But now U.S. is kind of backpedaling that a little bit, too, because this 26 to 28 number that is being floated by 2025 is a little bit less than that, and it’s based on 2005 level.
And so the broader picture of this is that while many people are very optimistic, including like Michael mentioned, and the scientific community is optimistic about it, the activist community is quite optimistic about it, but I’m fairly very skeptical about the whole Paris Summit for varieties of reasons–one of which, as I mentioned, the Nicholas Stern study shows that this commitment will not really adapt to anything what we need to do.
But also there are two other bigger issues that the biggest spoilers of climate change mitigation right now as I see, besides China, is U.S. and Canada, because these two countries are aggressively pushing for two types of development projects that’ll make climate change mitigation very, very difficult. One is the Arctic Ocean drilling that the United States government is pushing for, which is not only most dangerous, but it’s–really destabilizes a lot of the Arctic climate issues, as well as the broader climate-change mitigation issues. And the other is the whole tar sands development that Canada is pushing for. So climate change mitigation in Paris, what’ll happen in my mind is more saving face than actually solving the climate crisis.
PERIES: And, Michael, if Stern is correct and we cannot actually hold these states and the UN responsible in terms of countries meeting their target and doing something about it, what can people do? How can we follow and analyze and measure and hold these countries accountable?
MANN: Yeah, well, first of all let me speak to–there’s a bit of a misconception when it comes to what we might define as dangerous human interference with the climate. Often we cite the number 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial. It’s about three and a half degrees Fahrenheit warming relative to preindustrial time. And that’s based on the assessment of many of the scientists who study the impacts of climate change. If you look at impacts on food, on water, on land, on human health, on our economy, on national security across the board, what you find is that once we warm the climate more than 2 degrees Celsius, three and a half degrees Fahrenheit, you start to see some of the worst and potentially irreversible impacts.
But it isn’t like we go off a cliff at 2 degrees Celsius and if we go off that cliff, we just give up. That’s not the way it works. It’s much more like a highway. We’re going down this highway. It’s sloping downward. We don’t want to go any further down this highway than we have to. But if we miss the 2 degrees Celsius exit ramp, we still try to get the 2.1 degree exit ramp. And if we miss that exit ramp, we don’t just keep on driving.
So the important thing here is to make sure that we are making progress and sort of turning the ship around. And there is some evidence that we are starting to see progress in the numbers. If you look at the total carbon emission numbers from last year, what we saw was for the first time in many decades we had solid economic growth globally, but no increase in global carbon emissions. And that suggests that some of the actions that are already being taken by governments, whether it’s Germany that’s now meeting 30 percent of its energy demand through renewable energy or the efforts of the West Coast states and the Northeastern states here in the U.S., which are incentivizing clean energy and helping sort of to put us on that transition away from fossil fuels–we think we’re starting to see the impact of those policies in the numbers. And for the first time there appears to be evidence of a decoupling between economic growth and carbon to those who say there’s no way we can continue to grow the economy and solve this problem, the evidence now suggests that we can. Of course, just flatlining carbon emissions isn’t enough. We have to bring them down substantially if we are going to avoid breaching that level of dangerous interference with the climate, whether you want to call it 2 degrees Celsius, a degree and a half Celsius, 3 degrees C. If you’re a low-lying island nation like Tuvalu, we’re already there, we’re already facing dangerous human interference with the climate. The point is that we can start to right that ship, but it’s going to require more than we’re doing thus far. It is going to require not just that the U.S. and China agree to modest reductions in carbon emissions, but that all of the leading nations of the world agree to very substantial and mandatory reductions in carbon emissions.
PERIES: That’s the critical word, Michael, mandatory. Now, unlike, say, the IAEA, the atomic energy commission who’s responsible for assessing various countries’ commitments and whether they’re following through the climate-change crisis isn’t seen in the same light. What can the UN possibly do to make sure this is mandatory, binding, and there are consequences for not meeting those targets?
MANN: I’ll let my colleague speak to that if he’d like to.
BANERJEE: Well, [incompr.] I don’t know what to say to that, how [incompr.] make it mandatory. I think this, as Michael can say more on that, that that was what the–going into [incompr.] sort of the UNFCCC idea originally was, that each of these countries will actually commit and follow through. But now it is more like an honor system basis, and each countries–that’s why they’re–what do they call it? Intended nationally determined cuts. So each country is deciding it and then going forward with it.
And there are, of course, dangers to that, that many countries may or may not follow through. But the idea–I agree with Michael that the overall picture is emerging where countries are really beginning to realize that something has to be done about it. They have to take action. And they are beginning to take action. So that part.
The mandatory part is, of course, necessary, but I don’t have anything to say how UN can make that happen. I don’t think UN can.
PERIES: Alright, gentlemen. We at The Real News will continue to cover this issue with the passion that we do. And I thank you for making yourselves available to us for that coverage.
MANN: Thank you.
And thank you, Subhankar. It was a pleasure to do this panel discussion with you.
BANERJEE: Great. Same here, Michael. Great pleasure.
And thank you so much, Sharmini.
PERIES: Thank you both.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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