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Follow the leader - the roadmap out of climate gridlock

A new method will let countries choose their own way of setting “fair” emissions targets

An international team, led by the University of Melbourne, has devised a new method that allows countries to choose their own way of setting “fair” emissions cuts, effectively creating a roadmap out of the climate negotiation gridlock.

The new study, published in Nature Climate Change on October 27, calls on one major economic power – such as the United States, the European Union or China – to set a benchmark emissions reduction target for others to follow.

Once in motion, the model would ensure no country could claim to be doing more or less than anyone else while also managing to limit global warming to within the mutually agreed 2°C zone.

Lead author Dr Malte Meinshausen and his research team have labelled it “diversity-aware leadership”.

Dr Meinshausen, from the Australian-German Climate and Energy College at the University of Melbourne, believes positive change is possible in the lead-up to the COP21 talks in Paris in December.

He says the model could be the first step to solving the question about how countries share the burden.

“The world is united in wanting to fend off drastic increases in weather extremes and sea-level rises, but has lost its leaders in that endeavour,” he says.

The danger is that international negotiations are stuck in a gridlock about who should mitigate how much.

High-level climate change negotiations continue to be plagued by conflicting interpretations of “fair” shares.

“If the world waited to find an approach that is considered ‘fair’ by everybody, the outcome would be ‘fair’ only in the sense that all are hit by climate change,” Dr Meinshausen says.

Read this nine-page briefing note, which summarises the study’s main findings, compiled by Anita Talberg from the Australian-German Climate and Energy College.

Two broad views exist; one considers a future world where the burden is divided equally among the global population and where every person emits the same amount as the next. This is called “distributive justice”.

The second camp, or “corrective justice”, takes into account what has already been emitted, for instance, placing more of the burden on Australia or the US, countries with historically high per-capita emissions.

This third and new model – as outlined in the research paper National post-2020 greenhouse gas targets and diversity-aware leadership – would require the leader to move first and set an ambitious target for reducing emissions.

Other nations would then match that amount of effort, but choose the justice model by which it defines its own fair share.

The University of Melbourne’s team – together with international collaborators in Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland – began work on the study in January 2014.

Facts4Paris - Follow the Australian-German Climate and Energy College’s daily blog in the countdown to the COP21 talks

Dr Meinshausen summarises the new idea as “acknowledging the diversity of views on what is fair”.

“The study is hence more closely related to the political realities.

“But the approach also assumes that a large country leads by example, and one could argue that this is not on the horizon at the moment.”

The US, for example, could assume the leadership role by pledging to reduce its emissions by 52 per cent off 2010 levels by 2025.

That’s a far cry from the 21-24 per cent below 2010 levels it has currently pledged.

But with an ambitious 52 per cent target, China would then follow the leader with a pledge not to increase its 2010 levels by more than two per cent. Australia would have to reduce its 2010 levels by 41 per cent, Canada by 49 per cent and Indonesia by 26 per cent.

Having calculated the amount of emissions required by country, the study shows the world would then achieve an increase in global temperatures of not more than 2°C.

Considering the EU as a leader, it would also be required to double its emissions cuts with a 61 per cent cut instead of the current 27 per cent below 2010 levels (which is equal to 40 per cent below 1990 levels).

For Australia to be a leader, it also needs to almost triple its proposed emissions cuts, which currently stand at 23-25 per cent below 2010 levels (or 26- 28 per cent below 2005 levels).

Meanwhile, China – rather than exactly quantify an amount – has pledged to hit an emissions peak by 2030.

While difficult to quantify the level at which emissions peak, only a reduction of a third below 2010 levels by 2030 would put China in a leadership role.

In contrast, China’s peaking is quantified with at least a third increase in 2010 emissions until then.

The calculations have been extensively formulated based on current pledges, existing mitigation efforts and historical emissions records for various nations.

Much is based on the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that nations have been sending to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 2013.

Dr Meinshausen’s team has shown that virtually all countries fall short of the mark when it comes to leadership as well as both interpretations of a fair share.

“Our analysis shows the US and the EU would have to roughly double and Australia almost triple their domestic 2030 emissions reductions targets to be a leader,” Dr Meinshausen says.

One leader could catalyse a global consensus, where no one was doing more or less than the other.

“But it’s also vital we don’t see the reverse in Paris, where a leader sets the bar too low, encouraging others to follow suit.”

An interactive webpage with the study’s results is available here.

The Australian-German Climate and Energy College at the University of Melbourne has also released an in-depth assessment of all the INDCs with one factsheet per country, available here.

Banner Image: Daniel Roe/Magdeleine

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