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Comparing the Copenhagen climate targets

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In Brief

The Copenhagen climate conference and subsequent developments have made it clear that a legally binding international climate agreement is out of reach for the time being. But the Copenhagen Accord outcome delivered on something that until then seemed unattainable: unilateral commitments by all major emitters to cut or constrain their greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

Whether this is a viable basis for global climate policy in the medium term depends on whether countries will follow through with domestic policies for implementation, and that in turn depends on whether countries’ targets are seen to be mutually compatible in their ambition. Reassurance that any one country is not going it alone is particularly important as we move into a ‘bottom-up’ approach to international climate policy, as Stephen Howes argued is inevitable.


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In recent analysis released, I put the Copenhagen targets of the thirteen largest emitters on a common footing. The results give reason for optimism, because the pledges by most major countries imply significant effort, including in China and in a number of other large developing countries.

Countries have framed their commitments in different terms. Developed countries have expressed their targets as reductions in absolute emissions, but have chosen different base years. China and India have pledged a reduction in emissions intensity (the ratio of carbon emissions to GDP), while Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, South Korea and others have pledged percentage reductions in emissions relative to business-as-usual scenarios.

Translating all countries’ targets into changes in absolute emissions levels shows that growth in emissions would continue in China, India and some other fast-growing countries, while decreases would occur in most developed countries and, notably, in several developing and industrialising countries – provided reasonable business-as-usual scenarios are applied. The differences are driven to a large extent by differing prospects for economic growth and structural change, differing levels of development, as well as differing emissions profiles.

The differences are much smaller when looking at change in emissions per capita. A number of countries that are substantially below the developed country average per capita emissions levels – and far below North America and Australia – are targeting sizeable reductions in their own per capita emissions.

Taking the Chinese and Indian perspective and converting countries’ targets to change in emissions intensity of GDP reveals a striking result: the Copenhagen targets imply remarkably similar reductions across countries. The percentage cuts in emissions intensity in the United States, European Union, Japan and other advanced countries are all in almost the same range as the Chinese target of reducing emissions intensity by 40-45 per cent from 2005 to 2020. The intensity metric is important, as it directly reflects the ultimate aim of climate change mitigation policy – to achieve economic growth with fewer and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Targets can also be compared in terms of the deviation from business-as-usual baselines, the metric chosen by a number of developing and industrializing countries. Business-as-usual numbers are by nature contestable, as they are counterfactual scenarios. But a consistent set of assumptions applied to the major countries again shows remarkably similar targets across the majority of large countries. The average targeted reduction relative to business-as-usual for the major developing countries is the same as for the developed country average, at around one quarter. This would mean that developing countries account for the majority of overall pledged reductions globally.

The prerequisite is that the developing countries choose realistic baseline numbers to apply to their percentage targets, and resist temptation to inflate their business-as-usual trajectories. Visible action to curb greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries will help in this regard, as will independent analysis of all countries’ pledges.

A pivotal question for global climate policy is what ambition is implied by China’s pledge. My analysis shows that this pledge is in line with the targets by the major developed countries including the United States, both in terms of emissions intensity and relative to business-as-usual. Studies using other methodologies come to similar conclusions, for example Warwick McKibbin and colleagues who in addition model required carbon prices and economic costs of meeting some countries’ targets. This is in contrast to some earlier claims that China’s target implies little effort. Such results typically refer to projections that already assume significant policy action directed at lowering emissions intensity.

Reaching China’s target will require replication of reduction rates achieved during the reforms of the 1990s which did away with much energy waste, and which were followed by increases during the early 2000s. The difficulties in achieving China’s 2005-2010 target to cut energy intensity of its economy is another indication that the 2020 target will require strong effort. The Chinese leadership has given strong indications that the pledge is being taken seriously, and policies to promote low-carbon energy sources, to improve energy efficiency and to shut down inefficient industrial plants are being strengthened.

In short, the Copenhagen pledges by developing countries go much further than what was generally expected just a few years ago. They imply meaningful ambition, and are comparable with developed country targets in important dimensions. And importantly, as was evident from the recent Asia Climate Change Policy Forum, key countries are preparing for implementation of their targets, quite independently of stalemate in the UN climate negotiations.

The upshot for developed countries is that presumed inaction by developing countries can no longer be an excuse for delaying their own mitigation action. A case can be made that both the EU and Australia should move to a more ambitious position within their stated range of emission targets, based on the pledges made by other countries – and other developed countries will find little justification internationally for backsliding on their Copenhagen targets.

See related articles: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5

Frank Jotzo is Director of the Centre for Climate Economics & Policy at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Economics and Government.

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