Opinion | A stable climate requires strict budget discipline

The author is the head of communications for DenmarkÂ’s green think-tank CONCITO

The most striking findings in the latest report by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are the figures for the global “carbon budget”. If we are to have more than a 50 percent chance of keeping global temperature rises below two degrees, humankind’s collective emissions of greenhouse gases may not exceed 1,000 gigatons. Yet by 2011, we had emitted more than half of that amount – 531 gigatons. If the current pace of emissions continues, the rest of that amount will be used up within 30 years.

This tight carbon budget does more than just draw our attention to the need to let much of the world’s fossil fuel reserves remain in the ground if we hope to avoid a catastrophic climate change. It also sets the stage for a political tussle over how a forthcoming global climate agreement should distribute the remaining carbon quota among the world’s countries.

Given that the world’s richest countries – Denmark included – bear the primary responsibility for the current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, they also have a special obligation to take action.

If the Danish government’s goal of a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 is actually achieved, it will be a good start in our efforts to exercise climate budget discipline. It will not be the endpoint of Denmark’s climate change mitigation efforts, however.

Small country, big consumer
CONCITO’s 2013 Annual Climate Outlook (ACO2013) contains the first calculation of Denmark’s carbon budget. Measured per capita, Danes consume more and emit more greenhouse gas than residents of most other nations. For Denmark to do its fair share to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, we should, according to our calculations, emit no more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in the 2000-2050 period.

Between 2000 and 2012, Denmark emitted about half that amount – 933 million tons. If the government’s goal of a 40 percent reduction is achieved, we’ll emit an additional 361 million tons by 2020. That leaves us with just 760 million tons for the rest of the period. In other words, over a period of 30 years, we’ll have far less carbon in our budget than we’ve emitted over the course of the past 12 years.

Denmark’s tight carbon budget underscores just how imperative it is that we reduce our emissions by 40 percent by 2020. Alternatively, we could 1) procrastinate and force ourselves to make even deeper cuts later on, 2) let other countries deal with it, 3) let greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and just accept that catastrophic climate change is going to happen or 4) hope that the vast majority of climate scientists – despite their growing certainty about the anthropogenic causes of climate change and its disastrous consequences – wind up being wrong after all.

Furthermore, the situation also shows how important it is that lawmakers start laying the groundwork for new production and consumption patterns that can combine a healthy economy and more jobs with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Significant challenges
ACO2013 shows that with its current climate policy initiatives, Denmark is still far from its goal of a 40 percent emissions reduction. Much of the emissions decline since 2008 can be linked to the recession. It remains to be proven whether parliament’s energy strategy or other climate policy initiatives will have the desired effect. Much of this is due to the extremely low price of carbon dioxide quotas in the European Emissions Trading System (ETS), which seriously slows down the transition to more renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Scientists also question the effect of one of the main measures of the 2012 energy strategy: the conversion from coal to wood pellets as a source of fuel for Danish power plants. In Denmark and internationally, biomass has previously been considered to be carbon-neutral, but according to CONCITO’s ‘Climate impacts from biomass and other energy sources report ’, the actual carbon dioxide emissions from biomass in Denmark – provided it is only made up of waste agricultural and forestry products – may amount to five million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.  

Finally, the 40-percent goal is challenged by insufficient efforts in the transport and agriculture sectors, which have seen their emissions remain stable or even increase. The government’s climate strategy, adopted this August, includes a long list of promising proposals, but several of them were quickly shot down by the government itself. What the government actually intends to implement remains unclear.

The Danish climate budget requires that lawmakers show discipline and lay out a comprehensive, long-term plan for a green transition – not just of our energy system, but also of the transport sector, agriculture and our homes and buildings. The cars we’re buying today will still be on the road in 2030, and buildings typically get renovated once every 30 to 40 years. That means that the decisions made today will be decisive for our carbon emissions in decades to come.

The time to get started is now.

The author is the head of communications for CONCITO – Denmark’s green think-tank