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Closing ‘gigatonne gap’ can stop global warming

8 October 2010

We need to be honest here. Even if the world meets its current 2020 targets for cutting greenhouse gases, that won’t be enough to stop global warming or avoid dangerous climate change. But it’s not too late, or too difficult, to aim a bit higher. That’s the upbeat conclusion of our new report, ‘Plugging the Gap: An easy guide to a safe climate future’, released at this week’s UN climate talks in Tianjin, China.

Heard of the gigatonne gap? You will. It’s the difference between the greenhouse gas ‘budget’ that the world needs to stick to by 2020 (according to the climate science) and the actual emissions we’re on course to produce.

The world is set to overshoot the carbon budget by about a third – and that’s if we all achieve our current CO2 reduction targets.

In gigatonne terms – a gigatonne, the measurement of choice for carbon scientists, is a billion tonnes – the world is on-course to emit as much as 53 gigatonnes of CO2 (or the equivalent in other greenhouse gases) per year by 2020. The scientists’ recommended upper limit is 40 gigatonnes per year. The plan is this will peak and then gradually drop till we hit the agreed 2050 target, 80% below 1990 levels. 

Hitting the 2020 carbon budget is vital to set us on the right track. And as we explain in our encouraging new ‘Plugging The Gap’ report, there are some obvious and pretty easy things we can do to make it happen.

As a simple example, take ‘black carbon’ – otherwise known as soot. Soot has been shown to have a disproportionately severe melting effect when it settles on Himalayan glaciers or Arctic ice caps, because it makes surfaces absorb more heat.

But there are quick and easy fixes to the soot problem. Particularly cleaning up diesel fuels – on the way to phasing out fossil fuel-burning altogether – and supporting the use of more energy-efficient stoves in developing countries.

Closing loopholes to help plug carbon gap
We have to become low-carbon societies, as well as providing financial help for developing countries to do the same. Any new carbon fuel initiatives need to be closely regulated, and low-carbon renewable energy encouraged.

Working out exact global emission levels is complicated by the buying and selling of carbon credits, through schemes like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). But several gigatonnes could be saved per year if we close the policy loopholes and accounting tricks that can allow double counting or even fictitious reduction claims.

For instance, at the moment emissions cuts might be counted in two places – in the developing countries where they occur and in the developed countries that buy the generated CDM credits. Similarly, money spent by developed countries to buy CDM credits is often also counted as part of their committed financial support for developing countries.

As our head of climate change, Keith Allott, says: “We need to decrease annual emissions year on year and share the remaining budget in a way that’s considered fair not only to the industrialised countries but to developing countries too.”

That’s the way to close the ‘gigatonne gap’ and avoid the worst effects of climate change.

You can…

Read the new WWF report, Plugging The Gap

Take action: call on Chris Huhne to push for new sources of climate funding

Take part in the Big Climate Connection, and ask your MP to act for climate solutions

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