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World Climate Policies: Substantial Progress But Enormous Challenges Remain

This week Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors (DBCCA), in collaboration with the Columbia Climate Center at the Earth Institute (CCC), published their annual “Global Climate Change Policy Tracker. This report aims to analyze and quantify what countries around the world are doing to reduce their emission through policies, and how these efforts compare to the suggested reduction pathways that are likely to keep the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere below 450 ppm. Although the report is global, it highlights the countries of the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), a high-level global forum composed of 23 governments that are interested in promoting policies and programs to advance clean energy technology and encourage the transition to a global clean energy economy. The CEM countries account for about 80% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ~90% of global clean energy investment.

February 2012 Results

In the first part of the report, DBCCA and the CCC analyzed the impact of 612 policies (enacted as of February 2012) from more than 50 countries around the world. The study divides policies into two different categories: Emission Targets and Mandates. Emissions targets are differentiated from mandates based on scope: economy-wide reduction goals, without specifying a sector, are classified as emission targets (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol reductions); if the policies do specify a sector, such as aiming to reduce energy use in transport or increase renewables in power production, they are categorized as mandate targets. Emission targets and mandates only interact insofar as mandates are a mean to achieving emission targets. Some countries (e.g. Germany) have strong coordination between the overall goals stated in their emission targets and the  means to achieving that end in their mandates; others are less coordinated.

In order to quantify what a “best case scenario” would look like, the report describes the “Maximum Potential Reduction”, which is obtained by choosing the set of policies (either emission targets or mandates) that have the greatest impact for each individual country.

CCC, DBCCA Analysis 2012

As the image above shows, under the Maximum Potential Reduction, emissions peak in 2016 in line with economic growth in emerging economies and decline slowly to 2020, ending up at round 50 GtCO2e. Although this represents substantial improvement from the BAU scenario (which assumes no policies are applied and leaves us with 60.9 GtCO2e), the emissions in 2020 are still about 6 Gt above the 44 Gt target suggested by the UNEP as the safe upper limit of emissions by the year 2020. This 6 Gt is a substantial challenge: 6 GtCO2e represents about the total US GHG emissions in 2009.

The report finds that the three policies with the largest individual impact are: China’s Energy Intensity target (reducing energy intensity 20% from 2005 levels by 2010 and 18% reduction from 2010 levels by 2015), which has an estimated impact of ~ 3400 MtCO2e in 2020; Brazil’s deforestation policy (80% reduction in deforestation by 2020 compared to historic levels), which has an estimated abatement of ~1100 MtCO2e; and the U.S.A’s Copenhagen pledge (17% reduction from 2005 levels of GHG emissions in 2020), which is estimated to contribute a reduction of ~ 900 MtCO2e in the year 2020. Given that the USA and China are the two largest emitters in the world, it is not surprising that policies that aim at curbing their emissions would make it to the top of the list. Nonetheless, as the above figure shows, these efforts are not enough to maintain emissions within the desired limits.

Historical Analysis

Apart from analyzing the impacts of policies as of February 2012, the report has a “time-series” analysis, which aims to understand how the impact of carbon reduction policies has changed since 2008. To conduct this analysis, the modeling team created four separate databases with policy cut-off dates of October 2009, March 2010, January 2011, and February 2012. The cut-offs are representative snapshots of what the world like looked before Copenhagen (October 2009), after Copenhagen (March 2010), and the subsequent progress that has been made despite the absence of an international legally binding treaty (January 2010 and February 2012). The results of the study clearly show that the greatest changes in enacted policies occur between the pre and post Copenhagen periods. The figure below shows how the “gap” between the best case scenario and the 44 Gt target has shifted with time. Although the gap has certainly decreased between the first period (October 2008) and the last (February 2012), the rate and magnitude of improvement, still point towards a future where emissions exceed the safe limits that have been established by the scientific community.

Time Series Abatement. CCC, DBCCA Analysis 2012

This report, along with the recently published document by the IEA that tracks the rate of renewable energy deployment, highlights what people familiar with the topic already know: unless more aggressive policies and support for renewables are implemented by the largest emitters of the world, it is hard to envision a world that is not at the mercy of an increasingly unstable and unpredictable climate system.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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