Peak Emissions Now

by | Mar 2, 2009

The climate clock is ticking, but civil society is still missing in action. With only nine months to go before the Copenhagen climate summit, the world’s NGOs are far from having a compelling set of demands to campaign on.

Perhaps it is already too late. Many governments are already ramping back their expectations of what can be delivered. The deal-makers among them now desperately need civil society to change the terms of debate and boost all countries’ level of ambition.

I’d give campaigners until April’s London Summit to get their act together. After that, they have zero chance of retaking the high ground and starting to shape the pre-Copenhagen agenda.

So what should their demands be? What makes a good headline ‘ask’?

  • First, it has to fit with the science – that means stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at 450ppm CO2e (nothing lower is now possible).
  • Then, it needs to make sense to insiders – people who are making the major policy or investment decisions a clear sense of what they need to do now.
  • Third, it must communicate to a wider public – which means a goal that the average 12 year-old (or journalist) can understand and remember.
  • And finally, it needs to build climate into a wider post-meltdown narrative, offering an integrated vision for global recovery.

I think one clear, crisp demand fulfils all these criteria, providing a starting point from which all key elements of a global deal logically flow. Global greenhouse gas emissions exploded during the boom years, pumped up by debt-fuelled overconsumption. Now oil demand is declining – and we can expect global emissions see a modest fall too.

This provides civil society with a real opportunity. They should declare 2009 the year of peak emissions and challenge the world’s governments to develop a concrete plan to ensure they are never allowed to rise again.

Let’s match this ‘ask’ against the criteria I set out.

Does it fit with the science? Yes it does. To stabilize at 450ppm, global emissions will have to peak within the next few years – the IPCC said 2015. But emissions have risen faster than expected since the studies that the IPCC relied on (2.4% annually between 2000 and 2006), while carbon-cycle feedbacks may not have been fully accounted for. This brings the peak date ever closer.

In addition, there is a practical consideration. Allow the upward trend to resume over the next couple of years and economic momentum could make it impossible to meet a 2015 peak.

Turnover of capital stock is slow in both the energy and industrial sectors (and even slower in buildings and infrastructure). A downturn provides an opportunity to retire old stock early, while better policy will encourage investors to make decisions on new stock that will still add up in tomorrow’s carbon constrained world.

Will it make sense to insiders? This is going to need some work, as many insiders (including more timid campaigners) will be horrified by the prospect that governments should be asked to take radical action on climate today (much safer to focus on what their successors will do in 2020 or 2050).

But it’s not civil society’s job to make life easy – rather to persuade governments that ‘peak emissions now’ is a stretching target, but one that can be achieved if they combine:

  • US commitment to legislate domestically this year, with the aim of forcing down emissions that have risen by a quarter since the Kyoto baseline year of 1990. The United States is the least carbon efficient of any developed country, so there are huge cuts that can be made both quickly and efficiently (around 40% of its abatement opportunities to 2030 will bring net economic benefits).
  • European climate change policy which, if you believe the European Commission, is now beginning to really bite. Even before the downturn, the Europeans were proudly boasting that they will meet their Kyoto targets with ease (overshooting by 3% or so). They should be able to do much more now that economic growth has stopped.
  • Major new opportunities in China, where the Chinese finally have the chance to switch off some of their dirtiest and least efficient stock. In the boom years, they simply could not add capacity fast enough to retire old power and industrial plant. Now they can, especially if they get the right package of incentives (a fair deal at Copenhagen, tech transfer, no retreat to protectionism etc).
  • Green stimulus – the G20’s great climate opportunity is to agree co-ordinated plans to invest in a low carbon future. In part this is about long-run R&D – but there also attractive short term opportunities that (i) stimulate economies; (ii) squeeze carbon cheaply out of the system; (iii) insure new investment against a steadily rising carbon price.
  • Action on forestry and other sinks, where there is massive untapped potential to control atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations – if leaders are prepared to act decisively to cut through institutional and enforcement road blocks.
  • The Copenhagen deal itself, which will be much more palatable if built on the above package of short term measures, and which – done right – can offer a ‘signal from the future’ powerful enough to kick start the race out of carbon.

Taken together, these measures should allow the world to decouple global economic and emissions growth. It will be tough going for ten years or so, but at some point the world’s economy will hit a tipping point as investors begin to move en masse to a lower carbon growth trajectory.

Then the hard work can start of driving down emissions by 2050 to well below half of current levels.

Will it make communicate to a broader public? Yes – very easily. Peaking is very easy to understand. Even better, it is strong enough to support a background narrative that includes:

  • The stabilization trajectory an early peak puts us on (and what the world will look like if this opportunity to peak is squandered).
  • The beginning of an answer to the ‘who does what’ or ‘fair shares’ question (In the short term, we all have to make cuts wherever its cheapest, with rich countries footing the bill as necessary. In the long run, we’re heading towards near zero per capita emissions – a convergence that no country will be able to escape from.)

And finally, will it integrate economic and environmental concerns? Again, the answer is clearly yes, and I think the narrative is a powerful one:

  • We allowed global emissions to rise uncontrollably in the boom years – just another legacy of the age of irresponsibility.
  • Now we have an opportunity to stop the rot – the one silver living in an otherwise dismal global outlook.
  • So let’s have a global, green new deal – one that kick starts the international economy, and heralds a new age of green prosperity, and provide a basis on which a ambitious, fair and robust Copenhagen deal can be agreed.

So a scientifically based, stretching target for global climate change policy. One that brings together all nations in a single pursuit, can be explained to all concerned citizens, and integrates fully with broader economic concerns.

Peak emissions now. Three words which, I believe, global civil society should put at the heart of its climate campaign for 2009 climate.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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