What will a successful global climate change agreement look like? That question is only more important to ask in the wake of this weekend’s agreement by President Obama to a plan that will ask world leaders to reach a political agreement at this December’s UN climate talks in Copenhagen, ahead of a more binding agreement some time in 2010.

From a purely scientific perspective, the solution to climate change is straightforward. Burning fossil fuels and clearing forests over the last century have sharply increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to climate change. So, burn less fossil fuel and protect more forests in order to cap and eventually reduce greenhouse gas concentrations to a safer level.

The politics of that solution are much more complicated. Developed countries like the United States need to cut emissions dramatically, since their high emissions are responsible for getting us to this point. Developing countries like India and China need to take some responsibility for the future as their emissions rise and their forests continue to be cleared. For the former, that means breaking bad carbon-intensive habits. For the latter, it means establishing good low-carbon habits from the start.

A successful climate treaty will hinge on agreeing to how much developed and developing countries will reduce their respective greenhouse gas emissions, and also on agreeing how rich countries will help poor countries finance it all. At the same time, those emissions reduction commitments need to add up to enough global reductions to actually keep temperature change under 2 degrees C, the level beyond which impacts are likely to be irreversible and potentially catastrophic.

One reason countries are struggling to agree on emissions reductions going forward is that they have each had very different emission histories and so think they should have different responsibilities for containing future emissions. According to an interactive feature in the Washington Post, the United States has always been and remains a giant emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s surging coal-fired economy is now the single biggest emitter of all.

But China also has a population more than three times that of the United States, meaning that its per capita emissions are still a fraction of those from gluttonous Americans. Meanwhile, some European countries like Germany have already begun a steady but shallow decline in their total and per capita emissions. Missing from these statistics, though, are emissions from deforestation that catapult Indonesia and Brazil into the third and fourth ranks globally.

At the same time that negotiators work to agree on differential emissions commitments and the associated financing, they also need to make sure the emissions reductions add up to successfully stop climate change. According to Climate Interactive’s scoreboard, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by more than 80% by the end of the century to keep temperature change under 2 degrees C. Current pledges would reduce annual global greenhouse gas emissions by about 33%. Additional reductions being suggested could save another 33%. But more will be needed to turn the world onto a safer climate trajectory.

So what could a successful climate change agreement look like? What mix of emissions reductions would be fair for developed and developing countries, and will it be enough to stop climate change? Reductions of 25%-40% by 2020 are frequently suggested, but likely insufficient. Negotiators headed to Copenhagen have a hard job to do. But it is still possible for them to succeed.

You can explore some of these challenges and possibilities for a successful global climate change agreement using Climate Interactive’s C-Learn simulator. It lets you set emissions reduction targets for developed countries like the United States, fast-growing developing countries like China and India, and small developing countries like many in Africa. You can also set goals for reducing emissions from deforestation and sequestering emissions through reforestation. The simulator will then tell you how those targets add up in terms of overall emissions and predicted temperature change.

It may look and feel a bit complicated, but that’s how the real-world challenge is. Give it a try and see what ideas you come up with for how a successful global agreement could keep climate change under 2 degrees C. And then share your ideas here and at Planet Change.

(Image: Traffic at a stoplight in Bangkok. Credit: seasidebear/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I think it will be impossible to tell whether a climate deal was successful or not until 2050 or so. None of us know only time will tell whether our predictions are correct, and whether are actions are enough to prevent dangerous climate change

  2. All the efforts will be useless until the moment when a critical mass of people realizes the real reasons why the global warming occurs and who profits from it.

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