Envoys from some 190 nations are taking more seriously the idea of setting a goal for phasing out the pollution from fossil fuels, lending support to the movement against investments in oil and coal companies.
After a week of discussions in Geneva, delegates convened by the United Nations adopted an 86-page draft document with options including the near-elimination of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 or 2100 — or to suck the most destructive fumes out of the atmosphere by 2080.
While the text marks only the starting point of discussions, that fossil-fuel limits have been given such prominence in the talks is an indication the envoys are looking to ratchet up ambitions for a deal they wish to conclude in December in Paris. No nation publicly endorsed the text though almost all contributed to it.
“It’s hard to imagine Saudi Arabia and some of the other oil producers will accept language that explicitly says fossil fuels have to be phased out,” Alden Meyer, who follows the talks for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in Geneva. “It’s also difficult to believe that some of the Europeans and small island states will accept language that doesn’t at least implicitly go in that direction.”
With heat-trapping greenhouse gases from burning oil, coal and natural gas at record levels, global temperatures are on track to warm by 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s the quickest shift in the climate in 10,000 years, which scientists say raises risks of more violent storms and rising seas.
The envoys are working on a deal that would build on the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which limited emissions in industrial nations. The goal of that treaty was to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The UN along with some of the island nations most at threat from climate change want a more specific goal enshrined in the Paris deal.
There’s a “growing realization” among nations that the Paris agreement won’t be just a short-term fix for the climate but instead must set out a long-term path toward protecting the environment, said Christiana Figueres, the lead UN diplomat coordinating the talks. “That’s why it’s so important to have clarity on the long-term goal, on the ultimate destination.”
Mexico, South Africa and Nepal are among almost 120 nations backing some variation of a goal for eliminating man-made greenhouse gases, said Farhana Yamin, founder of Track O, a research group tracking the discussion about the targets. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, opposes a long-term target and China, which hasn’t publicly commented yet, is apt to resist binding targets, Yamin said.
“The fact that such an ambitious goal is even on the table is a good indicator,” David Turnbull, campaigns director of Oil Change International, said in an interview. “It’s a definitive shift from the past.”
In public, the biggest delegations have yet to make their views clear and because the UN talks work by consensus, everyone’s view is important. China and India didn’t comment publicly in Geneva and Saudi Arabia’s envoy couldn’t be reached.
President Barack Obama’s top climate envoy Todd Stern last year acknowledged any solution to climate change would mean leaving a lot of fossil fuels in the ground though the U.S. delegation didn’t comment on the matter in Geneva.
Stern, in an e-mailed statement, said the Paris agreement should include “a means for articulating a longer-range vision of deep decarbonization” that sends a signal “that we are on a determined path to a low-carbon future.”
The U.S. will probably be leery of a long-term emissions goal, Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to President Bill Clinton, said by phone from Washington.
“The U.S. is a fossil-fuel superpower,” said Bledsoe, a senior energy fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which studies international policy. “The notion that we’re not going to use fossil fuels in 2050 is going to be a political nightmare.”
The European Union’s delegate said she wants to see a trajectory toward cutting emissions in the Paris deal. She was non-committal about a specific goal.
“The long-term goal is something that remains a key topic for the discussions,” Elina Bardram, who speaks for the EU, said at a briefing in Geneva. “We need to come back to this in June but the views vary.”
Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio have backed eliminating fossil-fuel pollution. Last week, Virgin America Inc. founder Richard Branson and Paul Polman, the head of Unilever NV, were among executives urging world leaders to phase out emissions. French President Francois Hollande, who will host the key climate summit in December, has said such a deal needs to ensure the world’s net emissions eventually go down to levels the planet can safely absorb.
Energy majors such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell plc and Glencore plc have said they’re not concerned about the talks leaving them with stranded assets because the only way the world can feed its appetite for cheap and reliable energy is by using fossil fuels.
“The world’s energy needs will underpin the use of fossil fuels for decades to come,” Ben Van Beurden, chief executive officer of Shell, said Thursday in a speech in London. “Rather than ruling them out, the focus should remain on lowering their carbon emissions.”
Island nations at risk of being swamped by rising waters are the most passionate about slashing emissions. They’re also pressing for a more ambitious goal on the overall temperature increase that the world should tolerate.
“We are at the frontline of any adverse impacts and we are already seeing them on a daily basis — more frequent storms, floods and soil erosion,” Ahmed Sareer, a diplomat from the Maldives who heads the Alliance of Small Island States, said in an interview. “That’s why we can’t accept any target that allows warming greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Whether any of the options on fossil-fuel emissions survive in the final deal in Paris will be the subject of negotiations that last throughout the year. Envoys meet next in Bonn in June. Governments will give further guidance to the UN process throughout the year through other forums including the G-7 and G-20 meetings.
“The text has options from A to Z,” said Alix Mazouni of the Climate Action Network. “We have to make it more manageable before Paris.”
–With assistance from Alex Nussbaum in Lima.
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