By Martin Khor
A key threshold has just been crossed in the records that measure the progress of global warming: for the first time since measurements began in 1958, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded four hundred parts per million (ppm). This means that for every million molecules in Earth's atmosphere, there are four hundred molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2).
On May 9, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which is often used as a benchmark, recorded a reading of 400.03 ppm. It is estimated that next year the global average will exceed four hundred ppm.
The concentration of CO2 in the air is related to the temperature of the Earth. The general consensus is that for global warming to be below two degrees Celsius compared to the level prior to the industrial revolution of 1750, CO2 must not exceed the level of four hundred and fifty ppm. In fact, according to prominent scientists like James Hansen above 350 ppm is already dangerous. Therefore, it is necessary to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, although it is not clear how this could be achieved.
The effects of climate change are already being felt dramatically with the increase in extreme weather events, ranging from increased rains and major floods in Pakistan, China, Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom, to droughts in some parts of Africa and the United States, violent fires in Australia and Russia, and major storms or hurricanes in the Philippines, Central America and the United States.
How much worse will the situation be as climate change worsens as a consequence of the increase in the concentration of CO2 from four hundred to four hundred and fifty ppm and more?
The increase in concentration has been drastic. In 1958 it was three hundred and fifteen ppm and in 2000 it reached about three hundred and seventy-five ppm, before jumping to the current four hundred ppm. At this rate, we are on track to increase the temperature by the end of the century not by two degrees but by three to five degrees. A catastrophe.
The current temperature is 0.8 degrees above the pre-industrial level and we are already witnessing the significant detrimental effects, which give us a clue of what a world with two and even four degrees warmer would become. The one that our children and grandchildren could inherit.
The 2012 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on the “emissions gap”, produced by fifty-five scientists, shows that the total global emission in 2011 was fifty gigatons (50 billion tons) CO2 equivalent. That is, CO2 plus other greenhouse gases such as methane, but expressed in terms of CO2.
The level of CO2 equivalent emissions has increased rapidly. In 2000 it was 40 gigatons, before rising to 50.1 in 2011. This means that annual global emission increased ten gigatons (25 percent) in just one decade.
The UNEP report estimates that keeping the planet's temperature two degrees below pre-industrial level requires annual global emissions to drop to forty-four gigatons by 2020, and then continue to decline. However, if there are no policy changes, emissions are projected to increase to fifty-eight gigatons in 2020.
The good news is that the governments of several countries have committed to taking steps to reduce their emissions. The bad news is that those promises are not enough.
In the best of cases - if governments fulfill the maximum margin of their promises and under the best conditions - the level of emissions in 2020 will be fifty-two gigatons. This is well above the forty-four gigaton limit necessary to keep the temperature below the two degree level, although it is lower than what would be achieved if the current trend continues.
In the worst case - if governments take action but within the minimum margin of their promises, and in poor condition - the level of emissions in 2020 will be fifty-seven gigatons, which is almost the same as the level of fifty and eight gigatons that would be reached if everything remains unchanged.
In either case, the emissions projected for 2020 will exceed two degrees, reaching levels of three and five degrees. In other words, the projection is towards a climate disaster.
Technical solutions are not that difficult to conceptualize. The UNEP report offers suggestions on reducing emissions through changes in building construction, transportation and forestry practices and policies. To that can be added policies on energy, industry and agriculture.
The problem arises with the policies and costs of change. A global agreement on climate is difficult to achieve due to different perspectives on what is a fair distribution of efforts and who will bear the costs. Developing countries see rich countries as historically responsible for taking the lead in reducing emissions and paying - at least substantially - for the costs that developing countries must incur to switch to technologies and policies that involve low carbon emissions.
This historical responsibility stems from the fact that developed countries are responsible up to now for having emitted most of the CO2 present in the atmosphere. They got rich in part because their economies grew on cheap fossil fuels. And thanks to that their economies are richer.
If developing countries bear the full cost of changes, their economic growth will suffer and their development efforts will shift away from food, health care, and economic development to focus on climate-related measures. Therefore, they want rich countries to transfer funds and technology to them to support them in their shift towards a climate-friendly growth path.
Developed countries, for their part, are reluctant to accept “historical responsibility”, arguing that they cannot be held responsible for what their ancestors did in ignorance. In theory, they are willing to provide funds and technology, but in practice little funds and very little technology have been transferred to developing countries.
Developed countries also aspire to all countries - not just them - to sign the same type of emission reduction obligations. Developing countries consider this to be contrary to the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, which are central principles of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.
While science is increasingly clear on what is happening to the climate, and technical solutions are being developed on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in various sectors, it is policy to address climate change that is to be solved.
Martin Khor, founder of the Third World Network and executive director of the South Center, a Geneva-based organization of developing countries.