Doha for Dummies: The 2 degree threshold and ‘common but differentiated responsability’

Author: Sébastien Burgess, born in Paris in 1989. Graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Conservation and Resources Studies. Lives in Mexico City where he works as a cartographer on local environmental projects and sports commentator. Has been involved in environmental activism since his college years and is a proud member of CliMates since its creation in 2011.
Follow me on Twitter @BurgessSeb

In this post, I write about the 2°C degree threshold and where we stand now it terms of it. I also explain the concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’.  

To put the 2°C degree threshold in perspective (see segment 1), the non-hippy World Bank reported this week that the world was barreling towards a 4C degree rise by… 2060 on a business as usual track. The also-very-serious PricewaterhouseCoopers warned businesses this month to start preparing for a +6 degree world by the end of the century and pointed out that in order to limit warming to 2°C, global carbon intensity had to be decreased by 5.1% annually starting… now. At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that global carbon dioxide levels reached new records in 2011 and reached 390.9 parts per million (ppm) or about  40% above the preindustrial level.

Average carbon content in the atmosphere has increased by two ppm every year in the past decade. It is commonly accepted in the scientific community that exceeding a 450ppm would result in a 50% likelihood of limiting warming to 2°C and that only stabilizing emissions below 400ppm would give us a “relatively high certainty” of not reaching this crucial threshold. In other word, our carbon content “credit” or amount of carbon we can dump in the atmosphere without risking the catastrophic ecosystem collapses in a +2°C world (see segment 1) is 10ppm which should be reached given current growth rates by 2017 in order to play it safe. But since playing it safe is no fun and the precautionary principle seems to be applied to everything nowadays except for climate change, we can assume that we have until 2052 give or take to give ourselves a 50% chance of adverting climate disaster and this is on a current track. The previous equation does not take into account that population growth is set to grow to 8 billion by 2030 and 9 billion by 2050, and that energy demand (with its consequent impact on fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gases emissions) is set to double.

This brings us to the importance of the COPs which despite its shortcomings provides the global community with a platform to discuss these issues based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Keep this concept in mind; we will go back to it often. In other words, the common part of this principle states that climate change is an issue that we are all facing, that atmospheric dynamics happen indiscriminately of if the ton of carbon dioxide was emitted in Azerbaijan or China, and that every country should be contributing towards the global push towards progressive decarbonization. The differentiated element highlights the historical responsibility that emitters like the United States and Europe share for having based their entire economies and quality of livelihoods on carbon-intensive practices since the Industrial Revolution but especially in the post WW-II era. In return, developing countries should be allowed to a right to development and therefore be subject to less stringent reduction in emissions (or in the case of the Kyoto protocol as we will see in coming days not be subject any kind of reduction in emissions). Additionally, since the Western World benefited from a form of “carbon free-pass” for almost a century, if we are to impose a strict emissions regime, the common but differentiated principle should imply a heavy North to South technology transfer and financing in order to help poorer countries face the challenge of developing and staying on a Spartan-like carbon diet… something that the West historically was unable to do.

In the following segments, we will explore how the common but differentiated responsibility principle has impacted the COP process (with a focus on the Kyoto protocol, COP16-2010 at Cancun, COP17-2011 at Durban) and how it will be discussed at COP 18 in Doha.

"The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing." – Albert Einstein

by Sébastien Burgess

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