From Failure to Success: Reframing the Climate Treaty

by William Moomaw

Despite the extensive evidence that humans are warming the earth to dangerous levels, and that the current trend could lead to catastrophic and irreversible consequences, nations have failed over the past twenty years to achieve a successful international agreement to curtail climate change. The current goal is to develop that elusive agreement in 2014 and agree to it in 2015. Here is a proposal for getting the job done.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change correctly calls for the “stabilization of (heat trapping) greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Carbon dioxide, the main heat trapping gas, has already increased by forty-one percent above preindustrial levels, and other gases add the heat-trapping equivalent of an additional thirty-two percent. As with filling a bathtub with an open drain, the level of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere is determined by the rate at which they are being added minus the rate at which they are being removed.

Human society adds about 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually by burning fossil fuels and by converting some carbon stored in forests and soils into atmospheric carbon dioxide. Each year forests and soils remove only one-quarter of this amount, and an equal amount dissolves in the oceans. The rest remains in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we are simultaneously increasing our emissions and degrading the ability of forests and soils to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is as if we are opening the faucet for water going into our bathtub while simultaneously restricting the drain. The tub and the atmosphere are now filling up faster. In the case of the planet, carbon dioxide is also increasing the acidity of the oceans.

The current trajectory of net emissions will increase heat trapping gas concentrations sufficiently to raise the global average temperature by four degrees Celsius by 2100. The World Bank has concluded that this would destroy most of the development gains that have been achieved to date. But climate change is already happening. There is no question that the planet has been significantly altered by human activity, and that the world’s climate has already been changed with a rise in global average temperature of 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit). 2012 was the thirty-seventh consecutive year that exceeded the average temperature for the twentieth century.

While the treaty goal is to bring down concentrations of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere, it has focused primarily on slowing and eventually halting emissions.  Emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector have continued to rise even as other heat trapping gases (ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons) have declined. So far, governments have failed to agree on a plan to limit emissions because they fear it will reduce energy driven economic development in developing economies, and economic growth in developed countries. This policy failure has led some to propose slowing the global temperature rise by reflecting sunlight back into space through “geoengineering” rather than making the transition to a low emissions energy future.

While eventually reducing emissions nearly to zero is essential, it is insufficient to solve the climate problem when approximately forty percent of carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for 1,000 years at current removal rates. We must not only turn off the faucet that is filling the atmosphere with heat trapping gases, but also unclog the drain that is removing them.

Meeting Our Needs While Letting Nature Do Its Job

This two-part strategy requires the world to rapidly halt the release of heat trapping gases and embrace a massive process of Restorative Development that will replace lost forests and rebuild agricultural, grassland, and wetland soils so that they can accelerate the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Until now, the biosphere has been considered a marginal player in addressing climate change. One may purchase tree planting “offsets” for emissions from fossil fuels and become “carbon neutral.” However, this does nothing to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations. Similarly, burning renewable biofuels from plants release carbon dioxide more rapidly than replacement plants can absorb it when they grow. Their use alwaysincreases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Governments have decreed that global average temperatures not increase by more than two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial values. To stay within this goal, it will be necessary for society to release no more than 3700 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the entire course of the fossil fuel era. Unfortunately, we have released seventy percent of our budget already. This gives us just thirty years at current emission rates to halt our emissions of heat trapping gases. Even should we meet that goal, temperatures will remain high as some carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for more than a millennium.

Fortunately, there is now agreement among governments to support and to finance a program of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). The World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization are launching a global program for Climate Smart Agriculture that is designed to increase yields, adapt agriculture to a changing climate, and restore carbon to depleted agricultural soils. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification has the potential to restore over 5 billion hectares of degraded grasslands in a manner that will move atmospheric carbon to soils. Moving Restorative Development to the forefront can assure that climate is addressed, and that lands and forests can continue to provide societies throughout the world with services that they need for the long-term future.

Reducing emissions is only one half of the strategy for tackling climate change. Restorative Development—meeting our needs while allowing nature to do its job—is the essential other half of the strategy. It is a far more effective and a much safer approach to addressing climate change than geoengineering. Political support is growing, but garnering the political will to make this shift before it is too late will be a key challenge for international policy makers in 2014.

About the Author

William Moomaw is Professor of International Environmental Policy at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. Through June 2013 he also directed Fletcher's Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, which he founded in 1992. He serves on the Boards of several organizations that work on climate change, conservation, and consensus building. He is a chemist turned policy scientist with a Ph.D. from MIT, whose research focuses on integrating science and technology into international agreements.

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