Center for American Progress

There’s More than One Way to Reduce Global Emissions

There’s More than One Way to Reduce Global Emissions

Looking Beyond the U.N. to Fight Climate Change

Rebecca Lefton, Andrew Light, Melanie Hart, and Adam James offer a new approach to bringing down global warming pollution that taps multiple international forums instead of just the United Nations conference.

U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern, center, speaks during the climate  change conference taking place in the city of Durban, South Africa. (AP/Schalk van Zuydam)
U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern, center, speaks during the climate change conference taking place in the city of Durban, South Africa. (AP/Schalk van Zuydam)

See also: A Preview of the Durban Climate Change Conference by Andrew Light; Climate Finance Is Key to U.S. Climate Credibility by Andrew Light, Rebecca Lefton and Adam James; China Arrives in Durban Greener than Ever by Melanie Hart; Solving Climate Change Will Help Temper Rising Health Care Costs by Lauren Simenauer; Reading China’s Climate Change Tea Leaves by Melanie Hart

Representatives from 194 parties are currently in Durban, South Africa, for the 17th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. While we are likely to see some successes out of this meeting—like the next phase of implementation for the Green Climate Fund to mobilize large sums of money for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries—a new set of binding emission targets over and above the actions parties committed to in the Cancun Agreements in 2010 is unlikely until after 2020.

It is clear that focusing on the international climate change negotiations process in the UNFCCC alone is not enough to put us on a pathway to limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050, which is what scientists say we need to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. That’s why the Center for American Progress proposes a “multiple multilateralism” approach as a complement to the UNFCCC process.

This column introduces that approach, which identifies where emissions reductions can be realized in existing multilateral forums outside the UNFCCC. An upcoming CAP analysis expands on the approach and indicates the emissions reductions we could achieve through various paths outside the UNFCCC that can be harmonized with the goal of achieving climate safety.

But first, we will show why the UNFCCC’s reductions, even if successful and assisted by increased climate finance, will not get us where we need to be.

Emissions reductions under the UNFCCC pledges

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord—the agreement by the parties at that year’s UNFCCC meeting—introduced the goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It was finalized a year later in the Cancun Agreements. Parties that agreed with this goal were invited to pledge their national commitments to meeting this goal by 2020 that would be subject to external review. More than 80 countries responded.

These emissions reduction pledges can be divided roughly into two categories: the “low” and “high” Copenhagen scenarios. The low pledge scenarios are the reductions parties are willing to take on their own with no external cooperation or finance. The high pledge scenarios are the reductions parties are willing to take if certain conditions are met, such as financial help to increase that ambition.

CAP worked with Project Catalyst, a consulting group, to model the impacts of the Copenhagen pledges to see if they would get us on the 2 degree pathway by 2020. Assuming that business-as-usual emissions by 2020 will be 56 gigatons annually of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, we estimate that emissions would need to be reduced to 44 gigatons annually by 2020 to put the world on a plausible pathway to holding concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that stabilization at 450 parts per million gives us a 75 percent chance of holding temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius.)

Our analysis demonstrated that if both the high and low emission reduction pledges from Copenhagen were met, then two-thirds of the needed reductions would have been achieved by 2020 consistent with staying on a pathway to stabilize temperature at the 2 degree target by midcentury. This still leaves a gap of 4 gigatons (see chart) between the ambitious estimates provided under maximum fulfillment of the Copenhagen Accord and the reductions required to get to 2 degrees.

Required emission reductions for 2 degree Celsius pathway

Climate finance can help increase reductions

Finance will be needed to raise the ambitions of parties from the low Copenhagen pledges to the high Copenhagen pledges. And we believe the final gap between the pledges and a stabilization pathway can be bridged by scaling up additional finance for international climate aid.

Of the approximately 6.5 gigatons of reductions that are necessary to move from the low Copenhagen pledges to the 2 degree pathway, about 3.5 gigatons of those reductions must come from developing countries and will require financial support. Resources sufficient for 1 of these gigatons has been requested by various developing countries to move from their low Copenhagen scenarios to their high scenarios. The remaining 2.5 of these gigatons must also come from developing countries because these are the parties where the majority of emissions increases will be seen through this decade.

Consequently, our international climate finance commitments are even more critical for achieving emissions reductions by leveraging private finance for climate action in fast-rising greenhouse-gas-emitting developing countries.

During the December 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, developed countries made a commitment to $30 billion in “fast start” financing for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries from 2009 to 2012. At the U.N. climate summit in Cancun in December 2010, all parties also formally approved commitments to create a Green Climate Fund to mobilize large sums of money for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries and to raise $100 billion annually by 2020.

While this is a good start, we can’t simply wait out the rest of the decade, from the end of the fast start period in 2012 to the beginning of the Green Climate Fund in 2020, to scale up needed emission reduction programs in developing countries. The world needs a second phase of interim finance in order to maintain crucial investments that will be more costly if we wait to bridge this 2012-2020 gap.

In a Center for American Progress report last December with the Alliance for Climate Protection, we recommend a “ramp-up” period to increase public and private investment from 2013-2015. The report provides new mitigation and adaptation goals for developing countries by sector and specifies the increases in public and private investment necessary during a “ramp-up” period. We recommend that on top of the substantial and much greater amount of funds already being committed by developed and developing countries around the world to fight climate change, an additional $60 billion should be allocated between 2013 and 2015.

But among global concerns about economic growth and unemployment, and the European sovereign debt crisis, shoring up resources for international climate finance is a serious challenge. It is urgent, then, that in addition to looking for sources of climate finance to fill out the emerging Green Climate Fund, among other finance instruments, we should also look for other opportunities for lowering emissions through the rest of the decade to overcome the gigaton gap between emissions pledges made in the Copenhagen Accord and what would be needed to get on a 2 degree Celsius path by 2020.

Where will we end up after the Durban negotiations?

Agreement on new sources of finance will not be resolved at Durban. At most, parties may agree to discuss sources of finance in the future. But finance ministries around the world cannot make pledges to a fund that does not yet exist, so a vital part of the Durban meeting will be around fulfilling the commitment to establish the Green Climate Fund, which will be a significant mobilizer of public and private funds for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. It is imperative that the fund is adopted at this meeting.

In addition, a successful meeting in South Africa hinges on the implementation of steps agreed to at Cancun on technology transfer, adaptation, forestry, and finance. Because the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol—the only existing international agreement that binds greenhouse gas emissions reductions—expires in 2012, its fate is also exerting a powerful force on the outcome of this meeting.

At this point, only the European Union is willing to consider extending the Kyoto Protocol to a second commitment period. So far they have asked that other parties join them in setting a roadmap to a potentially new binding agreement to be enacted by 2020 at the latest. While the exact text of this roadmap and possible outcome is still being debated as a condition for extending Kyoto, this meeting will not produce any new global targets for emission reductions.

If the European Union’s conditions are met, there still will be no implementation of new binding emission targets until after 2020. If the European Union’s conditions are not met and Kyoto does not continue in some form, the discussion of additional global emission reduction targets through the rest of the decade will be delayed as well.

The “multiple multilateralism” approach

Our review shows that, impressive as they are, the pledges made so far by the major emitters and the financial flows to developing countries are still not ambitious enough to put us on a pathway to the 2 degree target by 2020. In the almost certain absence of a binding framework inside the UNFCCC that brings in all major emitters by 2020, we need to look outside of the UNFCCC to find alternatives to achieve climate safety.

In an upcoming report, CAP identifies emissions reductions that can be realized through alternative existing multilateral frameworks outside of the UNFCCC to close the gap between the existing unilateral pledges we have tracked so far and the reductions needed by 2020 to put us on the 2 degree pathway.

We should be moving forward on a slate of less comprehensive multilateral agreements—either in terms of the number of parties involved or the sectors of the economy covered—that can close the gap between anticipated unilateral mitigation commitments by parties until 2020 and reductions in greenhouse gases needed to put us on a pathway to climate safety by the end of the century.

In the report, we focus on emission reductions possible from existing agreements—such as the G20 pledge on elimination of fossil fuel subsidies—and those that have only been proposed, such as mechanisms that might be available through sectoral agreements from the parties in the Major Economies Forum.

Below we give an overview of three key ongoing initiatives where significant reductions are possible: the Montreal Protocol, the Major Economies Forum, and the Arctic Council black carbon program.

Montreal Protocol HFC Proposal

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, or MP, has successfully and cost-effectively limited the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and hydrochloroflurocarbons, or HCFCs—mainly used as refrigerants—that have high ozone-depleting potential. The MP has already phased out more than 98 percent of 100 chemicals to protect and restore the ozone.

This phase-out was much cheaper than expected, even though options to replace ozone-depleting substances were not readily available at the time the MP was signed. But the majority of replacements for ozone-depleting substances have been hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, substances with high global warming potential. HFCs are hundreds to thousands of times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon.

HFCs are projected to double by 2020, in large part because they are being used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances and because of growing demand for the substance in developing countries for air conditioning and refrigeration.

Because the MP has successfully reduced pollutants in a cost-effective way but has led to the subsequent rise in HFCs, which are used as a substitute for ODS, the MP should now also limit HFCs.

Hydrofluorocarbon use will soar in developing and developed countries

The North American Amendment Proposal to Phase-Down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, introduced originally in 2009 and resubmitted again this year, would limit the total production of HFCs beginning in 2014 and reduce emissions 15 percent below baseline every three years over a 30-year period. The measure would result in the reduction of approximately 4 gigatons of the carbon dioxide equivalent through 2020 and 98 gigatons of the carbon dioxide equivalent through 2050.

There are separate baselines for Article 5 (developing) and Non-Article 5 (developed) parties, each based on historical data from 2005-2008. The baseline for Article 5 countries only accounts for historical HCFC consumption, whereas Non-Article 5 countries estimates historical HFC consumption in addition to HCFC consumption.

The proposal also limits HFC-23, a byproduct emission resulting from the production of HCFCs and HFCs that is primarily used as a refrigerant. HFC-23 is 14,800 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. The phasedown of HFC production and consumption and the reduction of HFC-23s would be funded by the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund.

Arctic Council black carbon agreement

The Arctic Council is a multilateral, intergovernmental forum of the eight arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States) for addressing environmental concerns and climate change impacts (which includes expanded maritime traffic and resource extraction) in the Arctic region.

In May 2011 the Arctic Council called on its member states to strengthen mitigation measures for black carbon via the Nuuk Declaration. Black carbon is the particulate matter (soot) emitted from inefficient fossil-fuel combustion via diesel or machine engines, cook stoves, and biomass (forest) burning. The council offered tighter regulations and mitigation measures for diesel transport, domestic heating, biomass burning, marine shipping, and gas flaring.

Black carbon is a short-lived climate forcer. Like HFCs, it does not stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2, but it can have a more intense impact on climate change, particularly in the Arctic, where it darkens snow and ice and makes those Arctic surfaces absorb heat instead of reflecting it. The Arctic Council estimates that short-lived climate forcers such as black carbon currently account for up to 40 percent of Arctic warming.

Reducing black carbon emissions is not a stand-in for reducing CO2, but it can slow warming in the medium term while the global community works to reduce CO2 emissions.

Thus far, the Arctic Council has not pursued a treaty or other binding commitment on black carbon—the council is currently focusing on elevating the discussion to a multilateral level to improve cooperation and to encourage individual states to take stronger mitigation action. It is possible that the council may consider more formal action in the future.

Regardless, if these efforts result in stronger member state regulations to reduce black carbon emissions, it could significantly slow Arctic warming.

Major Economies Forum

The Major Economies Forum, or MEF, was established in advance of the Copenhagen meeting to explore possible initiatives that can increase clean energy while reducing greenhouse gases emissions. Representing the 17 largest economies in the world, the MEF provides a unique platform for action that lies outside the traditional U.N. process.

On December 14, 2009, the MEF took its first steps toward accomplishing its goals through the creation of the Global Partnership for low carbon technologies to drive “transformational low-carbon, climate-friendly technologies.” The Global Partnership created 12 “technology action plans” that together chart a course that addresses more than 80 percent of the major economies’ energy sectors’ CO2 emissions reduction potential. They are not mandatory.

The technology action plans provided a springboard for countries to launch national initiatives while collaborating on best practices and sharing information. Spanning everything from energy efficiency to advanced vehicles, the action plans helped translate hypothetical emissions reduction scenarios into 11 concrete initiatives sponsored by the Clean Energy Ministerial. These initiatives bring together major economies representing more than 80 percent of emissions, and various nations have subsequently pledged to carry them out.

In our report, we will analyze the various emissions reductions scenarios contained in these action plans, and the different timelines and probabilities of success.

The MEF’s potential, however, has not yet been exhausted. In CAP’s forthcoming report we will examine other avenues for cooperation among the MEF partners that could potentially bring about additional emission reductions among the largest emitters on the planet as well as potentially create sources of climate finance to assist in low-carbon development in other countries.


The UNFCCC should not be seen as the only venue for addressing global warming. In a perfect world, a new global, legally binding instrument would be agreed upon and would exceed current pledges for emissions reductions.

It is highly unlikely, however, that all parties will agree to binding emissions reductions before the end of this decade, and even if they did, that still might not be enough to close the gigaton gap solely through UNFCCC action.

It is therefore critical that we start and strengthen other dialogues for developing solutions to global warming outside of the formal negotiations process.

There is much to be gained from harmonizing opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in existing multilateral forums beyond and in concert with the UNFCCC. We do not need a new international process to do this. The infrastructure already exists in other multilateral frameworks.

Some of these agreements—like the MEF—are already underway and can be expanded to take on new roles and new ambitions. Others can be broadened in scope to address climate change but have thus far been hindered by political constraints. The view that forums such as the Montreal Protocol are not appropriate for addressing greenhouse gas emissions must be answered and overcome.

Broadening the scope of existing multilateral frameworks and buttressing existing agreements can generate emissions reductions that will help fill the gap left open by the UNFCCC.

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst, Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow, Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst on China Energy and Climate Policy, and Adam James is a Special Assistant at American Progress.

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Rebecca Lefton

Senior Policy Analyst

Andrew Light

Senior Fellow

© 2015 | Kristina Sherk Photography |

Melanie Hart

Senior Fellow; Director, China Policy

Adam James

Research Assistant