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Mind the gaps says head of UN climate change panel

Figueres spells out problems that hamper action on carbon emissions

Despite overwhelming evidence that humans are responsible for most recent global warming, persuading the countries to work together has proved challenging for the UN’s climate change body, which hopes talks in Poland next month will pave the way for a meaningful international agreement in 2015.

As a precursor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summit in Warsaw, a new report from a UN panel of experts now puts the probability that climate change is manmade at 95% – a figure that ought to concentrate the minds of the world leaders when they meet.

Christiana Figueres, the UNFCC’s executive secretary, has identified a series of  “gaps” to be closed for the climate change process to be considered a success.

The first of these is the international ambition gap shown by inconsistent voluntary international pledges to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in order to cap the global temperature rise since the pre-industrial times at 2°C.

The second is a governance gap, given continuing uncertainties over global legally binding commitments, while a third is a finance gap – while an agreement is in place to create a Green Climate Fund, it is unclear how this will be capitalised.

“While there is much [climate change] mitigation occurring many different countries and many different sectors, via many different partnerships, it is very clear that those are not enough", she said.

“We will need much greater effort in order to be able to close the science gap,” Figueres told a WEC 2013 session on prospects for climate negotiations. Christopher Rapley, professor of climate change at University College London told delegates that the new report was “arguably the most rigorous report on anything ever in human history”.

He agreed with recent remarks on the report by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said its findings showed: “Climate change is real; it’s happening now; human beings are the cause of this transformation; and only action by human beings can save the world from its worst impacts.”

The report found that if a temperature rise above 2°C is to be avoided, the world’s people can only emit a total of 800-880 gigatonnes of carbon, of which some 530 gigatonnes had already been emitted by 2011. At current emissions levels that gap would be filled in around 30 years.

“This clarifies what we are trying to negotiate: a world in which we can invest just the remaining 300 gigatonnes to get to a sustainable energy system,” Rapley said. 

Bringing a perspective from the power sector, Philippe Joubert, executive chair of the Global Electricity Initiative (GEI), said that for the private sector to fully play its part in regions where carbon trading takes place, such as the European Union, stronger indications of where the carbon price might end up in the future were needed, as it was clear that the current low price was unlikely to persist if tougher climate change measures were adopted.

GEI was launched at the 2011 climate change summit in Durban, South Africa to demonstrate the efforts of utilities to provide electricity sustainably and affordably.

Joubert said major utilities GEI had consulted had said they were building in a carbon price of $40-$100/t in their calculations for future investment plans. “The difference between the ‘real’ price and what the price is now is just the bill to be paid by the next generation,” he said.

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