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Bonn update: climate talks should up the pace

Written by Ilmi Granoff

As two weeks of climate talks in Bonn draw to a close today, commentators are rolling out a familiar and disappointing round up phrase – ‘slow progress.’ We’re now at the half way point in a critical year for climate change, hopefully culminating in a legally binding deal in Paris this December. But at this stage in the game, should the Paris process be taking more of lead from movement outside the negotiating rooms, as was seen at the G7 Summit this week?

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was heralded as something of a climate and development magician as she walked out of the G7 Summit. For her first trick, she secured a commitment from the world’s richest nations to ‘decarbonise the global economy’ by the end of the century – essential if we are to keep within two degrees of global warming. For her second, she got them to commit to eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.

What this means in practice can be extrapolated from the long-term targets outlined in the G7 communique on Monday. G7 countries have signed up to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by between 40% and 70% of 2010 levels by 2050. They even acknowledge that it would likely need to be the upper end of this range. To put this into context, the World Bank’s recent report Decarbonising Development makes clear that reaching zero net emissions by 2100 involves, among other things, completely decarbonising all electricity generation by 2050.

This would require immediate and aggressive limits on the development of new coal-fired power and the politically difficult decision to end public expenditure on fossil fuel exploration and production. It would also call for a strategy on the judicious use of gas to support a rapid transition to renewable energy (as discussed in ODI’s recent paper on shale gas in China), as well as the infrastructure and policies to enable a renewables-heavy electricity grid.

2050 may still sound like a long way off, but it has concrete and radical implications for today’s actions. Just this week, Oxfam revealed that five members of the G7 collectively burned 16% more coal in 2013 compared to 2009 – clearly a move in the wrong direction. And even magic Merkel couldn’t get leaders to consider immediate binding emissions targets at the G7 Summit.

In the coming months, countries that have not already done so will make their climate mitigation pledges (known as INDCs) ahead of the UN climate negotiations in Paris this December.  So far, all such commitments have both near and medium term targets, but these aren’t compulsory. If the Paris process is to meet the challenge of climate change head on, it should require near and long term targets in these pledges that bring all countries to near zero emissions by the end of the century. 

All countries will need to play their part for the world to reach zero net emissions by 2100; industrialised nations will need to cut fast and deep, replacing existing infrastructure with low carbon alternatives, while developing countries will need to shift towards low-carbon future growth.

In her video podcast the day before the Summit, Merkel says it is possible to achieve steady global growth while protecting the climate, adding that Germany has managed to decouple economic growth from CO2 emissions. ODI’s analysis on Zero Poverty, Zero Emissions shows that a zero emissions path is compatible with the growth needed to end extreme poverty, so long as this growth can better benefit the poor.

As the African Progress Panel report recently highlighted, Africa has the opportunity to leap frog the 19th Century model of dirty industrialisation straight to a clean, productive future.  Meanwhile, ODI and Oxfam analysis shows that low-carbon technologies offer the best prospects for getting energy to the billions of people stuck in energy poverty.

The decision to stick to the old ways is ironically sometimes given credence by poverty campaigners eager to present a ‘no holds barred’ approach to poverty reduction. They have become apologists for big coal, failing to factor the massive health and climate costs of continued reliance on coal-fired power.

We therefore stand at a crossroads. The costs of not acting on climate change will push the goal of ending poverty by 2030 permanently out of reach. The poorest will be hit hardest by weather and climate extremes, and recently hard-won development gains will be wiped out as millions more are pushed back into poverty.

The two goals – an end to poverty and zero emissions – therefore must be pursued together. The G7 have laid down the gauntlet, signalling that the time has come for big ambition. It’s now time for the Paris process to take its cue and tie near term ambition to the long term zero goal.