Carbon targets fall short of two degree goal

World leaders will have to dramatically step up efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions if they are to achieve their stated target of limiting global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, scientists at one of the world's top climate change institutes warned yesterday.

A team from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany published a report arguing that the emission reduction pledges that have accompanied the Copenhagen Accord will fail to meet the agreement's goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Centigrade.

The scientists calculated that even if the current emission pledges are met it would result in a more than 50 per cent chance that warming will exceed three degrees Centigrade by the end of the century. Average temperature increases of two degrees were chosen as an over-arching target by world leaders as scientists fear that greater increases in temperature could trigger emissions from carbon sinks, such as the Arctic permafrost, that could then result in "runaway climate change".

Joint research leader Malte Meinshausen explained that the current targets would add up to emissions of 48 GtCO2 a year by 2020, well below what is required to limit temperature rises to two degrees. "It is like racing towards a cliff and hoping to stop just before it," he said.

The researchers added that even the three degree outcome was based on the countries signed up to the Copenhagen Accord adhering to the upper end of their stated emission reduction targets.

"Many countries have indicated that working towards the stronger end of their pledged ranges is conditional on a global agreement that doesn't currently exist," said joint research leader Joeri Rogelj. "In the worst case, we could end up with emissions allowances exceeding the business-as-usual projections."

The researchers also warned that loopholes, such as trading in surplus carbon allowances, could enable some countries to achieve their targets with minimal or no domestic emission reductions.

The Kyoto Protocol allows countries that reduce emissions beyond their agreed emissions target to save up surplus allowances that can be sold on at a later date. The researchers warned that some countries' original targets were so weak that they now hold large numbers of surplus allowances that they could potentially use to count towards future emission targets "without any environmental policy effort".

However, there was some good news for the beleaguered Copenhagen Accord this week when the European Union's executive recommended making an extra 2bn euros in loans available to help developing countries combat climate change through its financing arm, The European Investment Bank (EIB).

The move follows recent commitments from the US to make good on its pledge to provide additional climate funding for developing countries under the Copenhagen Accord and provides further evidence that rich nations are beginning to fulfil their funding commitments.

Meanwhile, according to new UN figures the economic crisis has contributed to a 2.2 per cent fall in greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised nations. The drop marks the biggest fall in emissions from developed countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a 3.5 per cent cut in emissions.

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